Darcy James Argue’s 18-piece big band Secret Society graces The Jazz Gallery’s stage once again this Thursday and Friday evening. Amid rich textures and dramatic arcs, the band’s music opens a wider dialogue with political issues both past and present.
Amidst a busy rehearsal schedule after returning from his native Vancouver, we spoke with Argue over the phone about how the current socio-political climate impacts his new and previous works, how the history of the internet impacts the music world, and what we can expect from these special Secret Society performances.
The Jazz Gallery: It’s been a few years since the premiere of your project Real Enemies. How has your view of the piece changed as the band has played it more, and in light of the current political climate?
Darcy James Argue: Real Enemies premiered in November 2015 at BAM, and we recorded it in early 2016 before any of the primaries had taken place. And of course, all the writing and contextualization for it began about three years before the premiere, back in 2012 when Isaac Butler and I first had the idea for the piece. We sort of wondered, at the time, whether anyone would really be interested in a piece about conspiracy theories and weaponized paranoia! We knew we were interested, and it looked to us that these trends were in ascendance, but we had no idea how drastically our culture would shift, to the point that we (A) elected a conspiracy theorist as president, and (B) put conspiracy theories at the front and center of American politics for the past 4 to 5 years.
TJG: Interesting—yes the piece is relevant right now and extremely prescient at its inception. How does your recent commission “Ebonite” compare to Real Enemies?
DJA: “Ebonite” is probably the opposite of Real Enemies! It’s sunny and bright and a piece full of joy and life. It’s named after this sort of miracle substance that comes from the South American rubber tree. Hard rubber ebonite is used in things as diverse as saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces and hockey pucks. With the grimness of today’s world—that’s something I grapple with in my music and my day to day life—you also need to periodically remind yourself of the stuff that roots you and brings you joy in life.
Ironically, this was driven home for me last Thursday when the assassination of Soleimani was announced. I was at a hockey game in Vancouver—watching my home team, the Canucks, pull out a 7-5 victory, a really exciting and thrilling game with so many beautiful goals. You leave the stadium in great spirits and then check your phone for alerts and you’re like, wait… what? Having these wild emotional swings is very much part of our current culture. For better or worse, this is part of the connected world we live in.
I’m not trying to make light of the dire situation we currently find ourselves in, on the brink of a conflict that could make the Iraq War look like a cakewalk. It’s really important that we resist this latest attempt to thrust the world into violence and chaos. But in order to deal with this, a certain amount of self-care is necessary and for me that self-care is often music.
TJG: Real Enemies deals with conspiracy theories in the context of social media and the internet. How have these socio-technological developments impacted your music?
DJA: That’s a very big and broad topic and there’s not really one answer. Certainly, the internet itself has gone through some tectonic shifts. With regard to music, those shifts began with the whole Napster era, the file-sharing era. And then you had the advent of digital music sales, and the rise of music blogs. In the early 2000s, you had this infrastructure for music on the internet that actually seemed to allow for independent music to break big and come to public consciousness without all the mechanics of record company promotion.
In a lot of ways, the promise of the early internet has been crushed. We didn’t realize at the time how fleeting it was to have this moment in our culture where some of the gatekeeping functions that had been the purview of big record companies were weakened and you had this flourishing of independent music, andindependent groups could come into prominence (including Secret Society).
I’m sort of selfishly nostalgic for this time, since our rise came through word of mouth and through the internet, through a blog that I maintained and through live recordings of our gigs which we uploaded. There was interest in Secret Society long before our first album was released back in 2009. And now the streaming services have rushed in to that gatekeeping role. They’ve made themselves part of this narrative, and now it’s a much more passive listening experience—it’s all playlists, and the artists providing the content for these big streaming services are almost invisible.
If you talk to the average listener today, very often they can’t name the music they listen to. All they know is the playlist. They can’t tell you the artists that are on that playlist. Which, for anyone who cares about the future of music, feels like a profoundly depressing turn of events!
There’s always a pendulum, and I hope that the pendulum swings back towards more active engagement with music. I hope we recognize as a culture that something serious has been lost if you can’t name the artist that you are listening to right now! I don’t know what the answer is technologically, but I think culturally there really does need to be a shift back towards valuing artists, and listening to albums, and for listeners to be more active in the curation of their own listening experience, rather than relying so heavily on big corporations to do the curating.
TJG: You’re dealing with some pretty heavy themes here, and while your music does veer into noir, it contains moments of reprieve and humor. How do you bring levity and humor into your noir soundscapes, especially if the subject matter of a piece is heavy?
DJA: I think even in a piece like Real Enemies, which is obviously dealing with some very weighty and serious issues of mass surveillance and the military-industrial complex and doomsday cults and things of that nature, there are moments of humor—dark humor definitely—but relatively light-hearted moments compared to the rest of the piece. Like “Casus Belli,” when I was imagining a group of CIA operatives sitting around a pool at the Concord sipping banana daiquiris and plotting the Bay of Pigs.
Humor and satire are tools in the toolkit, and often they are our most powerful weapon. It can feel at a certain point that the current presidency is beyond satire, or that the world that we live in is unrelentingly grim, but we can’t lose the capacity to satirize or find humor, because it’s a nourishing force. As a Gen X kid, I sort of feel like satire and parody are very much a part of my generation’s DNA. Those are tools you use when you don’t have a lot of power, and all you have at your disposal is to try to expose the people who do have power for the ridiculous beings that they are…
TJG: Can you speak about the multimedia elements in Real Enemies — how did you balance instrumental jazz with spoken word elements and visuals?
DJA: Well, it was conceived as a multimedia piece—we had 15 screens of projected video and a set and designed lights and costumes and staging. It was a piece that I worked on very closely with my collaborators Isaac Butler (writer-director), Peter Nigrini (video artist), and also our lighting designer Maruti Evans. We worked very closely on Real Enemies to create this very immersive experience that would mimic the overload of information. There is literally too much going on to absorb and so the audience has to pick and choose where they are going to focus their attention at each moment—at times, a deliberately overwhelming effect, creating an onslaught of information—to allow the listener to curate their own experience within the performance.
I knew when I was writing the music that there would need to be contextual space for the spoken word and for that to interact with the music. So those pieces of spoken word audio remained baked in. When we perform the music live I use an iPad to trigger the spoken word audio—it’s really another instrument, one that’s integral to how the music was written.
TJG: And what about the role of improvisation in your music—how does it fit in and how does that serve as a reflection of our times in your music?
DJA: As a composer, one of the challenges is to create a framework for improvising musicians to be expressive but to also contribute to the narrative. Not every jazz musician has the skill set to do that, and not every jazz musician wants to do that. There are lots of really great improvisers who would chafe under those kinds of constraints—they want to be able to have the ability to go off in any direction at any time. And that can be great! But for my music, there is a story, there is a narrative, there is a collaboration that happens between me as a composer and the improvisers who are bringing it to life. I try and create a context for improvisation that is inspiring and exciting and challenging for the soloist and gives them something to play off of and react to.
That’s one of the big, thrilling things about big band music: the kind of dialogue that can happen between a massive force of musicians and one improvising soloist. One of the most consistently exciting things for me as a composer is to create a landscape for someone to then fill in with their improvisation—it’s what keeps every performance fresh and different. When we get to the solo sections, I never know what I’m gonna get and neither does the audience, so it’s part of what keeps me interested in playing this music—it’s evolved in a really exciting way along with the improvisers who play it.
TJG: What have you been working on recently?
DJA: The most recent project is Ogresse, a collaboration with the singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. It is really extraordinary to work with such a great singer, who is also a really great composer and lyricist—I’m not sure she gets enough credit for that. We premiered Ogresse in 2018 at the Met Museum, and there were additional performances last fall at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We just recorded it last month and we’re taking it on the road in March to California. Ogresse is a piece about a female ogre who has an insatiable taste for human flesh, so it’s a different side of Cécile! It’s a very powerful, very personal piece from her and I’m looking forward to more people being able to see it.
TJG: What can we expect and look forward to at this show? How is the prep going?
DJA: We had our first rehearsal for this show this morning. I flew in from Vancouver yesterday, and then as soon as I got in, it was straight to the filing cabinet to pull out all the music that we’ll be performing Thursday and Friday at The Jazz Gallery. Before every gig is a good 4 hours of pulling charts out of folders and putting other charts back in. The glamorous life of a big band composer! [laughing] Of course, when you get everyone together at the rehearsal and the music starts to come together, you remember why it’s all worth it.
At this show, there will be music that people haven’t heard for a while. It’s going to be a challenging set of music for us, some of the most difficult music in the Secret Society book. We’ve got Jorge Roeder playing with us for the first time on Friday night and he’s just a phenomenal bassist. He was at the rehearsal this morning and fit right in right away which is always great. We’ve got Ingrid Jensen, and it’s been some time since she’s played with Secret Society. Of course, she’s a founding member but she’s incredibly busy with her solo career and we’re really thrilled that she’s gonna be back in the fold with us for these gigs at The Jazz Gallery.
Sara Jacavino is a wonderful, incredibly talented trombone player who I’ve known and admired for a long time and she’ll be joining us for her Secret Society debut—she’s played a ton of rehearsals with us over the years but this is a first show with us. And of course all of our regular co-conspirators, including Mike Fahie, Ryan Keberle, Jacob Garchik, Rob Wilkerson, Sam Sadigursky, Nadje Noordhuis, Jonathan Powell, and all of the incredible musicians I’m so fortunate to work with.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 9, and Friday, January 10, 2020. Under the direction of Mr. Argue, the band features Alexa Tarantino, Rob Wilkerson, Sam Sadigursky, Quinsin Nachoff, and Carl Maraghi on woodwinds; Sam Hoyt, Jonathan Powell, Matt Holman, Nadje Noordhuis, and Ingrid Jensen on trumpets; Mike Fahie, Sara Jacovino (Jan. 9)/Ryan Keberle (Jan. 10), Jacob Garchik, and Jennifer Wharton on trombones; Sebastian Noelle on guitar; Adam Birnbaum on piano/keyboards; Matt Clohesy (Jan. 9)/Jorge Roeder (Jan. 10) on bass; and Jon Wikan on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $30 general admission ($15 for members), $40 reserved table seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.