subota, 29. lipnja 2013.

Big Farm - Big Farm (2013)

GMO kontradikcije, čaj se sudara s biciklom, muha s Jupiterom, povijest rudarstva s trubom, nestali dio rekvijema s oštricom trave... Svojevrsni prog-rock, ali u kontradikciji s vlastitom šećernom bolešću.

It answers a call to each of these musicians to a place where the rules normative to the hard genres of music (classical, jazz, folk, pop, blues, and world, for example) are set aside.  Under the banner of ‘prog-rock’ it becomes possible for the group to express the eclecticism of its members, a place where serious counterpoint can meet burlesque, earnestness meet abandon; a place where we can kick it or take it to tea, reflect, attack, mourn, dance, pray, or mock with ease or determination, joy or fervor, using any and all means necessary.  This world is a big farm – lots of different crops, changing weather, livestock, and a duck pond for good measure. -

NYC-based four-piece Big Farm will release their self-titled debut album May 28th on New Amsterdam Records. "Something like a Blind Faith–style supergroup for new-music cognoscenti" (Time Out New York), Big Farm features four of today's most revered and vital composer/performers: Grammy winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist vocalist-lyricist Rinde Eckert; in-demand electric bassist Mark Haanstra; Grammy winner and pioneering composer/guitarist Steven Mackey; and celebrated percussionist Jason Treuting (So Percussion). The band will premiere songs from their new album on March 20th at NYC's Ecstatic Music Festival® in a collaborative set with JACK Quartet. The album will be available for purchase at the performance. 
After years of various collaboration, admiration and respect for each other, the members of Big Farm finally banded together in 2009, answering a call to a place where the rules normative to the hard genres of music are set aside, making it possible for the group to express the eclecticism of its accomplished members. 
The band explains: "Big Farm is a place where serious counterpoint can meet burlesque, earnestness meet abandon; a place where they can kick it or take it to tea, reflect, attack, mourn, dance, pray, or mock with ease or determination, joy or fervor, using any and all means necessary. This world is a big farm – lots of different crops, changing weather, livestock, and a duck pond for good measure." 
The album was recorded, produced and mixed by Lawson White and and Todd Whitelock at Avatar Studios and Good Child Music Studios in New York City. The album was mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk. Album guests include Alexandra Sopp (flute), Mary Jo Stilp (violin), Kiku Enomoto (violin), Christina Lberis (viola), and Rubin Kodheli (cello). 

"Call it art rock if you must; what’s clear is that the fascinating tension between Mackey’s wild flights and Eckert’s arch stylings serves both halves of that description." — Time Out New York 

"Big Farm uses the term 'prog-rock’ to describe its sound. But don’t assume this band sounds anything like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, or other bands from decades ago that are associated with the term. Big Farm defines the genre in its own way."  Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone

The temptation to over-intellectualize Big Farm’s self-titled debut is hard to resist.—which isn’t to say that it’s not an intellectual record. They clearly want you to think, and the album ranges far and wide over some esoteric musical landscapes. But while you’d expect a dense, nigh-impenetrable album from four luminaries of new music, the glory of Big Farm is the sheer exuberance that permeates every complex passage or heady lyrical idea. You’re welcome to dig in, searching for the compositional complexity and hidden meanings, but you’re also welcome to sit back and rock out.
Big Farm
Big Farm
Big Farm could be called prog rock, but that term comes with all kinds of baggage. “Progressive” rock became “prog” when the pretense of progressiveness fell by the wayside. For every King Crimson or Henry Cow attempting to fuse rock with modernist forms of classical and jazz in a genuine effort to create original music, you can find ten Dream Theaters playing in 17/16 just because it’s flashy. (Dream Theater may, in fact, be the only band in the world whose entire fanbase consists of members of Dream Theater sound-alike bands). Prog, really, is about reconciling the intellectual stimulus of classical and avant-garde music with the undeniably primal power of the riff. Whether it starts with a classical musician hearing Sabbath for the first time, or a metalhead hearing Stravinsky, the result is the same: music that yearns to stimulate the mind while melting the face with awesomeness (in technical terms, at least).
Of course, it’s 2013, and all this is an old hat by now. Punk rock realized long ago that John Cage was the punkest motherfucker of the 20th century, Meshuggah is basically Penderecki with screaming, and Bryce Dessner sits at the previously unfathomable nexus of indie rock, modern classical, and fantasy television. Musical boundaries only really exist as tags on YouTube, and most modern composers interact with rock music in some way or another. Big Farm are emblematic of the modern wave of rock-influenced new music that, while technically a sort of fusion, doesn’t sound like a fusion. Instead of self-consciously contrasting seemingly incongruous elements, the music is an organic outgrowth of eclecticism, something that can’t really be called a fusion or a blend because the disparate elements are too tightly interwoven, too deeply connected, to be separately identifiable.
Upon first listen, there does seem to be some self-conscious subgenre allusions. “She Steps” and “My Ship” are outright Zeppelinesque, “Lost in Splendor” ends in a punkish inferno, “Break Time” sails on Radiohead/Sigur Ros slow-groove clouds and includes a clever reference to “Revolution #9”. The destructive angles in “Like and Animal” and “Ghosts” step foot into jagged, off-kilter noise rock territory, although no matter how abstract the music gets, Big Farm maintain a sense of clarity and control even in the most chaotic moments. Every note feels deliberate. And this is what saves them from a gimmicky “this is our punk song, and this is our blues, and this is the angular one, etc.” kind of vibe: each piece maintains a logical, organic flow in which every style touched upon feels natural instead of clever for cleverness’ sake.
Big Farm Album ArtVocalist/lyricist Rinde Eckert’s background in opera and new music make for a unique interpretation of the high-pitched frontman archetype. A Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, as well as an Obie winner, Eckert eschews vague poetry for short narratives with an emphasis on death and the passage of time. His opera cred is evident in the way he juggles recitative and pointilist melodies with aplomb, but when the music calls for him to slip into the guise of a rock singer, he does so with grace. He never imitates the style; even on “My Ship”, the most direct reference to straight-ahead blues-rock on the record, he inhabits a theatrical character, half soul-man pentatonic and half experimental-theater operatic. Jason Treuting has a similar approach as a percussionist, as likely to bang on a bike tire as he is to sit at a drumkit. He stays in a mostly traditional mode throughout the album, anchoring the music with familiar grooves, which makes the occasional arrhythmic flurry or spacey cymbal wash that much more jarring. Electric bassist Mark Haanstra locks in with Treuting to create a fantastically satisfying rhythm section, but he is no more bound to his role than his cohorts. Guitarist Steven Mackey flits about stylistically more than the rest of the band, moving from soundscapes to crunching riffs to airy chordal textures in a span of seconds, always unexpected but never disruptive. Which is also a good way to sum up Big Farm’s sound in general.
That…didn’t really sound like “not overthinking” the album, did it? Like I said, the temptation is too great. There’s too much going on for me to not be drawn in, but I’m also the kind of listener that goes hunting for obscure details. What’s important about this record is that it’s not gratuitously inscrutable. Big Farm is as willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves as they are happy to obscure their intentions, often over the course of a single song. The intellectual depth of their debut should be recognized, but it’s nice to have a work of challenging, thought-provoking music that’s also a great rock record, with even a few catchy hooks amidst the drama and dischord. -  

Put on your sturdy boots and let us walk the rows, turn the soil and delve deep into the fertile loam that is the highly diggable Big Farm
Big Farm is both album title and band name, the band consisting of Steven Mackey (guitar), Rinde Eckert (vocals and accordion—stay with me now), Jason Treuting (drums and percussion), and Mark Haanstra (bass). In other words, a quintessential rock ensemble. More to the point, an ensemble that closely parallels the two great quartet versions of King Crimson. The sound worlds of Larks Tongues/Red-era Crimson (Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, John Wetton, Ian Wallace) and to a somewhat lesser degree of theDiscipline period (Fripp, Bruford, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin) provide a good if imprecise reference point in thinking about Big Farm which, yes, unapologetically embraces many of the attributes of the oft-maligned (and oft-unfairly maligned) genre of "Progressive Rock." (Other sidelong touchstones might be Frank Zappa, albeit stripped of the juvenile potty humor he embraced, or perhaps Gentle Giant, a band deserving of reassessment and of a better defense than that offered by Rick Moody a few years back.)
In contrast to the original generation of Prog Rock musicians, who were fundamentally rockers looking to import elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde musics into a rock idiom, the members of Big Farm all bring maximal New Music/cultural credibility to their band project. Steven Mackey played guitar in bands in Northern California in an earlier life, but embraced more formalized composition training and now, as his day job, heads the Music department at Princeton. He has collaborated regularly withRinde Eckert, who sings, acts, composes, writes, and has earned (among other honors) an Obie award and a Pulitzer nomination in his own right. Two Mackey-Eckert projects—Dreamhouse andSlide (aka, on record, Lonely Motel)—have been nominated for or won Grammy awards in recent years. Jason Treuting is a founder and core member of modern percussion ensemble Sō Percussion.Mark Haanstra is a much admired, jazz-based electric bass player headquartered in the Netherlands. All of Big Farm's songs are credited to the members jointly, though investigative work can trace at least a few of them to individual composers.
Big Farm begins, in "Like an Animal," as life itself does: lost in the dark, on the edge of panic, wondering at every stray sound, searching for the way out to someplace else. Things lost and damaged—love, dreams, identities, lunch—are present or missing in profusion in Big Farm songs. Time passes. Time "has mustard on her hands" in "Break Time." Time comes between us and those irrecoverable "Salad Days." Time creates the illusion that it is not passing while we are "Lost in the Splendor" of belief in love. And in "She Steps," the charming woman with the purse and the dog and the thoughts of Provence is, all unbeknownst, mere moments from death at the hands of speeding drunk.
The elves and spaceships of old school Prog are nowhere in evidence. Oh, there are ghosts—even an entire song called "Ghosts," drawn from Mackey and Eckert's Slide—but they are made less of ectoplasm than of angst. The protagonist of Jason Treuting's "Margaret Ballinger" is something of a ghost in her own life, a contemporary Eleanor Rigby, sinking into her bath at the end of a day with "nothing left to lose," possibly not planning to rise from it again. "My Ship"—not the Weill-Gershwin tune, more like "Dazed and Confused" with lyrics by Burroughs or Bukowski—introduces a correspondent from "the land of spoons and needles" who hits us up for food or a ride and shares a lame joke or two and wanders off in a haze. Big Farm ends not in death but in a stasis of maturity as Eckert enters into countertenor range, sweet and bruised as a Britten choirboy, to share what "John Knows": that you can't quite trust the face you see in the mirror.
And, other than some quiet times with Margaret or John or a fixedly contemplated piece of rice paper, Big Farm rocks. Steven Mackey's guitar is everywhere, flinging power chords, crying the blues, deploying prickly harmonics, prowling and striking. Jason Treuting never met a polyrhythm he didn't like, apparently, and is ably joined on the bottom by Mark Haanstra's fluid bass. Rinde Eckert, meanwhile, floats and dives and lurks through the hubbub, as much actor as singer, shifting on a dime from sneer to croon to falsetto to patter/rap to bellow and back again. It is riveting stuff, embracing the full range of modern unease.
For me, the big story on Big Farm is how much pure pleasure I have been deriving from it. I have had the benefit of a review copy since early spring, and it has rarely strayed far from whatever device I am listening with at any given time. The performances, the writing, the recording, the sequencing, the pacing, the eccentrically meshing gears of rock and art song: it is all seemingly effortless and seamlessly satisfying. The first half of 2013 has seen a string of very fine new music releases, more of which I hope to get round to writing about here, but even in that strong companyBig Farm stands out. At midyear, it is an almost prohibitive favorite to top this fool's "favorite albums" list come December.
Highly recommended to anyone with ears and a soul below 'em and a brain betwixt 'em. -

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Brooklyn Babylon (2013)

Jazz propušten kroz stotinjak paralelnih svjetova. 
18-člani steam-punk ansambl. Multimedijsko remekdjelo. Ilustracije/animacije je napravio naš Danijel Žeželj.

Brooklyn Babylon-Promo Video

Brooklyn Babylon-Chapter 5-Excerpt

Brooklyn Babylon-Chapter 5-Excerpt
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Conjuring the baroque majesty of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the gritty social narrative of Walker Evans’ photography, acclaimed graphic artist Danijel Zezelj's animation brings the rich visual imagery of Brooklyn Babylon to life. Each frame is painted by Zezelj on a large wood panel, then digitally captured, processed and sequenced into an animated film, projected onto a giant scrim. This innovative technique gives the animation a feel that is simultaneously hand-crafted and elegantly contemporary. Over the course of the performance, Zezelj also live-paints a vast cityscape, visible between animated chapters, which gradually fills a 30 by 4 feet canvas. 

Photo by James Daniel

Weaving together progressive jazz, early-American popular styles, Balkan folk musics, and the sounds of Brooklyn’s diverse contemporary music scene — from the dance-punk of LCD Soundsystem and experimental indie rock of Dirty Projectors to Missy Mazzoli’s blend of post-rock and quirky minimalism — Argue creates a vividly evocative musical narrative that is at once timeless and unlike anything heard before. Argue’s Secret Society is one of the most admired ensembles in contemporary jazz, having toured in Europe, Brazil, and North America and been twice featured at the Newport Jazz Festival. Its members include in-demand instrumentalists such as John Ellis, Ingrid Jensen, Ryan Keberle, and Sam Sadigursky.
Brooklyn Babylon was conceived in collaboration with Croatian-born visual artist Danijel Zezelj, whose narrative inspired Argue’s mash-up of musical styles. Zezelj’s artwork places the action in a larger-than-life, mythic Brooklyn, where past, present, and future coexist. Plans are afoot to construct an immense tower — the tallest in the world — right in the heart of the city. Lev Bezdomni, a master carpenter, finds himself torn between his personal ambition and his allegiance to the community when he is commissioned to build the carousel that will crown it.
The 53-minute work shows Argue taking a novelistic approach to long-form composition: a prologue, eight chapters separated by brief interludes, and an epilogue. The album opens with the actual sounds of Brooklyn — a sonic collage of recordings of the borough captured on Argue’s portable digital recorder. The ensemble gradually comes into focus and introduces the Prologue, from which every subsequent musical theme in Brooklyn Babylon derives. Argue reconfigures these themes using a broad array of techniques, inflected by contemporary indie rock, classical music, and jazz, particularly from the often maligned 1970s: the earthy avant-garde of Dewey Redman and Lester Bowie; the intricate large-ensemble sounds of Thad Jones and Don Ellis; and the sophisticatedpopulism of Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Waltzes, marches and — naturally — fairground carousels also fold into the mix. -

Photo by James Daniel

Vancouver-raised, Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader Argue eclipses his Grammy-nominated Infernal Machines with this concept album conceived with Croatian graphic novellist Danijel Zezelj. Taking place in a futuristic Brooklyn where the past, present and future all exist as plans are put in place to build the world’s largest tower in the borough, the story revolves around local artisan Lev Bezdomni and his personal dilemma about crowning the structure with a carousel or not. The eight-chapter novel is published later this year but you really only need it if you care to approach the work that way. The 58 minute-long piece is such a mind-blowing mix of every imaginable musical style existing in the “heart of hipsterdom” — from swinging Balkan brass to experimental art rock fusion, Duke Ellington fused orchestration and more — that you don’t need any storyline. Rather just sit back and write your own listening to the wonderous sounds Argue and the 18-piece killer Secret Society have achieved here.— Stuart Derdeyn

Part of the audience engagement process in multimedia performance is the integral dynamic of conflict and resolution between forms. Take one of them away and you have a different sensory experience. So, having witnessed graphic artist Danijel Zezelj and Darcy James Argue's Secret Society create separate but integrated works of art in the live performance of Brooklyn Babylon, it's challenging to antedate expectations around what may seem to be one part of an equation. However, Argue's release of the suite from Brooklyn Babylon does more than stand up—it is an astonishing, living and breathing creation; as sprawling and vibrant as the sweeping canvas of Zezelj's monolithic Brooklyn Bridge and wrecking ball, beautifully reproduced for the CD's cover.
The scope of Brooklyn Babylon is expansive and insightful. Classically bookended with its "Prologue" and "Epilogue," Argue's compositions incorporate pastoral Americana, European influences and measures of avant-garde. As an extended form, this suite differs from Secret Society's much heralded debut Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009) where solo performances are more insistent compared to the Impressionistic and billowing backdrop of the main themes. Brooklyn Babylon is cinematic in its slow and understated setting of scenes giving way to highly expressive improvisations and then regrouping.
Erica von Kleist's piccolo, Josh Sinton's baritone sax and Sebastian Noelle's electric guitar impart vocal qualities to their instruments when the Secret Society expresses powerful human emotions as in "The Tallest Tower in the World." Architectural and social engineering come together in "Construction + Destruction" reflecting the broader implications of progress through the dark veil of a daunting Gotham infrastructure. The collateral damage can be felt eloquently in Ingrid Jensen's haunting trumpet on "Builders" even while the adjacent melody never gives up enthusiasm for moving forward and apprehension of the unknown. The melting pot of Brooklyn figures prominently through Latin, Middle-Eastern and Eastern European flavors. Those subtly devised inspirations are most notable in pieces like "Prologue," "Missing Parts" and "Interlude No. 3. Enthrall" with its Central Asian influences.
Argue—like Maria Schneider—is among a small handful of exceptional composers who have taken ensemble music far beyond a vestige of a bygone era. He deals in complicated themes not easily made musically palatable but Argue and the Secret Society take them to a level that is completely engrossing. With its humanity, complexity and transformational beauty, Argue has created a timeless modern masterpiece with Brooklyn Babylon.
Track Listing: Prologue; The Neighborhood; Interlude #1: Infuse; An Invitation; Interlude #2: Enjoin; The Tallest Tower In The World; Interlude #3: Enthrall; Construction + Destruction; Interlude #4: Bewail; Builders; Interlude #5: Unmoored; Missing Parts; Interlude #6: Arise; Grand Opening; Interlude #7: Aloft; Coney Island; Epilogue.

Personnel: Erica von Kleist: piccolo, flute, alto flute, soprano sax, alto sax, electronics; Rob Wilkerson: flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax; Sam Sadigursky: clarinet, tenor sax; John Ellis: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax; Josh Sinton: clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Seneca Black: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Tom Goehring: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Matt Holman: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Nadje Noordhuis: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet, fluegelhorn, electronics; Mike Fahie: euphonium, trombone; Ryan Keberle: trombone; James Hirschfeld: trombone, tuba; Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone, tuba; Sebastian Noelle: acoustic & electric guitar; Gordon Webster: acoustic & electric piano, melodica: Matt Clohesy: contrabass & electric bass; Jon Wikan: drum set, tapan, surdo, cajón, shaker, tambourine, misc. percussion; Darcy James Argue: composer, conductor. - KARL ACKERMANN,

Photo by James Daniel
Darcy James Argue’s latest album is a rich, multilayered masterpiece of large-forces composition. The 53-minute Brooklyn Babylon is a grand project that never falters over its seventeen tracks, employing a multitude of big band orchestral colours and compositional devices that draw upon many possible forerunners from the past century and a half while never sounding like retro pastiche. It’s fun to play ‘spot the influence’ with Argue’s music, knowing that he will always transform semi-familiar rhythms, textures, chords and riffs into something entirely personal.
The structure is of eight pieces separated by seven interludes, framed by a jaunty Prologue and a magisterial Epilogue. The interludes are shorter, often using smaller, more unusual forces, while the main pieces follow a narrative created by Argue’s talented collaborator Danijel Zezelj, who also contributes live painting and animations to its live incarnation, which was premièred at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in 2011. According to the brief liner notes, the full multimedia experience describes the construction of an immense tower in the ‘teeming metropolis of a future Brooklyn.’
On the CD, Zezelj’s visuals are limited to a handful of forthright monochrome sketches, including a brutal hook and wrecking ball against the Brooklyn Bridge, but they clearly make an important contribution to Brooklyn Babylon’s mood and structure. Some pieces change with initially bewildering speed, carelessly picking up and abandoning melodic and rhythmic threads, while the band, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society switches faultlessly between marching-band pomp, funk-driven fusion, swollen eruptions of brass-laden emotion and many other challenging, thrilling personae.
Fortunately this fragmented structure, displayed at its most extreme in Grand Opening (track 14) and Coney Island (track 16), plays to Argue’s strengths. What in lesser hands might have become twiddly postmodern bricolage comes across like a tightly edited, well argued documentary, in which each segment builds up evidence that leads listeners to an inevitable, satisfying, transformational conclusion – the wonderfully sublime ‘Epilogue’.
Despite its length, there are few wasted moments in Brooklyn Babylon, no aimless water-treading – it’s packed with music and musicality. Every component of the suite is place while sounding loose-limbed and liberating – something that few big bands achieve without an expensive rehearsal schedule or a long tour. Individual improvisers – all outstanding – flow in and out of Argue’s structures without any detectable restraint, yet never outstay their welcome. The rhythm section – Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Gordon Webster (keys), Matt Clohesy (basses) and Jon Wikan (drums and percussion) has a vast library of rhythms at its disposal.
Brooklyn Babylon demonstrates Argue’s audacity right from the start – the Prologue sounds like an exceptionally tuneful La Banda-like street band who run nonchalantly through all the suite’s main themes with Webster’s deliberately gauche melodica over Wikan’s busy cajón.
We don’t enter familiar Secret Society territory until ‘The Neighbourhood’ (track 2), driven along by ostinato piano, a stirring tenor sax theme and shouting brass. This is eventually tempered by a contrasting, restrained section in three-four with a poignant clarinet refrain before crashing back into the first groove with Noelle’s guitar power chords and some exultant (almost Mike Gibbs-like) ensemble writing that quickly subsides into sensitive woodwind. ‘An Invitation’ (track 4) builds slowly over hocketing part-writing (with possible nods to Steve Reich, John Adams and Louis Andriessen) and gorgeous, thoroughly Argue-like textures for low brass.
‘The Tallest Tower in the World’ (track 6) has a repetitive, slow, nine-beat sequence that worms its way into your brain, only to collapse into delicate woodwind and muted brass writing before heading back into bombast. At this point, the unprepared listener might feel they’ve heard everything that Argue has to throw at them, but there’s far more, from the alternately tense and raucous fusion of ‘Construction + Destruction’ (track 8) to the magnificent ‘Builders’ (track 10) in which Ingrid Jensen plays an exultant trumpet solo that deserves a Grammy all its own. Jensen’s complete immersion in the piece, and her obvious delight in the timbre of the electronically processed sound reminded me of Ian Carr at his exuberant best.
Few people write as well for trombones as Argue, and Brooklyn Babylon is full of great trombone moments, from James Hirschfield’s solo in the gloriously eventful, cajón-led ‘Missing Parts’ (track 12) to Ryan Kerbele’s spirited blast in ‘Interlude #1 Infuse’, which Argue explains is ‘inspired by a Don Ellis groove’. It’s also good to hear the woodwind used in such an unapologetically contemporary manner, and Sam Sadigursky reinvents the clarinet for the 21st century big band in the almost hysterical coda to ‘Builders’.
Brooklyn Babylon is exceptionally well recorded for a big band album – recording and mixing engineer Brian Montgomery has clearly made a big contribution to the integrity of the sound, it sounds as if few short cuts were taken. When things are supposed to sound small, like the fragile wooden flutes in ‘Interlude #2: Enjoin’, they sound tiny. When they have to sound powerful, like the low brass and drums reverberantly hammered out at the end of ‘Construction + Destruction’, they sound like a last-minute warning for the end of time.
With the excellent Infernal Machines (2009), Argue demonstrated that he could create substantial compositions with a loyal band that could invest his themes and structures with drama and energy. Brooklyn Babylon is less like a jazz album and more like a through-composed classical suite, yet it builds on the modern jazz composition traditions and methods explored over the past half century by Gil Evans, George Russell, Don Ellis, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, Peter Apfelbaum, Maria Schneider and the jazz composer’s jazz composer, Bob Brookmeyer (with whom Argue studied in the early 2000s). There are echoes of other North American musics, from Sousa and Ives to Barber and Bernstein. What’s possibly conspicuous by its absence is the bravura swinging big band style kept alive by myriad American college bands, and in the JLCO (Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra) established by Wynton Marsalis at another kind of citadel in the centre of Manhattan. It’s not that the Secret Society can’t swing, but they don’t do ‘swing band’.
Recorded at the celebrated Avatar Studios in New York and produced by Argue and Montgomery, the whole album has great warmth – its middle frequencies compare well with the shrillness and hollowness evident in many current recordings. And, given the complexity of the score, the mix achieves a sonic depth of focus that ensures we never miss a crucial detail, whether it’s one of Erica von Kleist’s elliptical piccolo lines or the urgent opening of Jon Wikan’s hi hat. We’re in something of a boom time for big bands, right now, in Europe and in the States, but with Brooklyn Babylon, Darcy James Argue and the Secret Society have set a new standard. - John L. Walters

The composer has a little bit of the archetypal indie rocker in him. He's a white guy from Canada who moved to Brooklyn and started a band there. His new album is filled with deliberate suggestions of dance-punk; of Eastern European brass bands and carnival music; of the piano riff in LCD Soundsystem's "." It's about gentrification. There's an animated projection that goes with it.
But Argue's medium of choice is the big band — the standard large jazz ensemble with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, that sort of thing. He has his own anachronistic orchestra, called Secret Society. The fact that he's able to do this in 2013 says something about how hard he works at it, and how interesting the results are. Eighteen standing members — including world-class soloists like John Ellis, Ryan Keberle and Ingrid Jensen — and a long list of substitutes seem to think so, anyway.
Any big-band composer spends time dealing with a certain jazz tradition of how Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Thad Jones had orchestras before them. If you've ever read any of his writing, you know that Argue has spent plenty of time engaging that legacy. But this project, his second studio album, is decidedly broader than "large ensemble jazz." It was conceived in collaboration with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, who created charcoal-hued stop-motion animation telling the story of a future Brooklyn. (He also live-painted a massive 30' x 4' cityscape during the premiere of this music.) The story follows a master Brooklyn carpenter contracted to build a carousel atop a new tower, set to be the tallest in the world, as his professional aims and neighborhood loyalty find themselves at odds.
That makes Brooklyn Babylon something of a soundtrack, though it stands alone better than your average score. For all the layers-upon-layers of classical minimalism, or noisy squalls, or powerful solo turns, it never feels like a pop quiz in musical vocabulary. Motives repeat, build, tessellate; a wooden flute or an electrified trumpet always feels purposeful. The whole thing, as many-tentacled as words make it seem, coheres.

The brings all this out. Zezelj's language — its severe angles, its black-and-white monochromatic look — suggests a metropolis reminiscent of both early-20th-century New York and a bordering-on-dystopian future. There's humanity there, though, in seething masses and individual pathos pushing up through the cracks. A modern big band like this one can do grim, and it can do overwhelming, and it can do it in ways you'll "get" even if you haven't listened to a jazz record in your life. But it's powered in the old-fashioned way of bodies pushing air through bores and sticks unto cymbals, and the exuberance therein is never far away. - Patrick Jarenwattananon

Animation painting: Chapter 7, Grand Opening, Acrylic on Wood, 4x3 feet
Animation painting: Chapter 5, Lev's Nightmare, Acrylic on Wood, 4x3 feet
Animation painting: Chapter 2, An Invitation, Acrylic on Wood, 4x3 feet
Animation painting: Chapter 4, Construction & Destruction, Acrylic on Wood, 4x3 feet

Darcy James Argue and Danijel Zezelj

by Jeremy Mage

In the new Brooklyn Babylon, graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj harmonizes with composer Darcy James Argue to make art in the round, as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.

All photos courtesy of James Matthew Daniel.

Composer Darcy James Argue and graphic novelist and animator Danijel Zezelj will be premiering their epic Brooklyn Babylon at this year’s Next Wave festival at BAM. The collaborative work fuses live performance with original music from Argue’s 18-piece band Secret Society, stylized animation created by Zezelj, and live painting, all in the service of a highly compelling and socially relevant narrative. I attended the October 22nd preview performance at SUNY Purchase. A few days later, in the last rays of October’s glory, I rode my bike out to Danijel’s studio in Gowanus to talk to the creators of this multifaceted and original work.
Jeremy Mage Brooklyn Babylon seems set in a mythical Brooklyn, with some visual cues suggesting we are in the 1920s or ’30s, and other references to more modern aesthetics, such as hip-hop. Can you talk about the artistic purpose of these anachronisms?
Danijel Zezelj The whole idea was that the story is set in a place that’s specific—that’s Brooklyn—and that Brooklyn has to come through, but it’s not set in any specific time, it’s rather past and present and maybe near future. And that’s why those elements are mixed together. Also aesthetically for me those are things that I’m very attracted to: the ’20s and ’30s, the aesthetic of silent movies, Russian avant-garde movies and German Expressionism, all of that, [plus] black and white photography from that time. Then there is a lot of play with shadow and light, the Baroque aesthetic. I was always fascinated by that, so it worked perfectly well as a set up for the story. And anyway, today it seems things keep coming back, certain aesthetics, fashions and looks, and it seems these circles of how things come from one to another keep getting smaller and smaller and faster and faster. Even on the street today you have people dressed like they were dressed in the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s not even that strange anymore. So there’s that element too, it reflects the reality.

Danijel Zezelj, Chapter 1, acrylic on wood, 4×3 feet, 2011. All images of paintings courtesy of the artist.

JM At [the performance at SUNY] Purchase, in your conversation with Creative Producer Beth Morrison, you talked about this tradition of city as protagonist in a film . . .
DZ Yes, someone mentioned Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis [Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt]. Yeah, that’s a very interesting movie, but that actually came after and was inspired by the first movie that’s really a movie where the city plays the main character, that’s by Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera (1929). You don’t have a story or a traditional narration or anything like that, he just captures certain moments in the city, it’s all documentary, from very weird angles, and he was like hanging from the wire from the top of a building. It’s quite amazing. A lot of people know this movie because it’s a favorite movie to write a score for. It’s quite open and abstract.
JM Speaking of optimum things to write a score to—Darcy, you said you knew early on that you wanted certain themes or ideas for certain visual beats. Some film composers tend to hit cues more on the nose, while others spin out a theme that doesn’t interface as exactly with most of the on screen edits. Did you study some of the different types of film/music relationships?
Darcy James Argue Yeah, it’s an interesting question because it’s not really like traditional film scoring. In a film score you have dialogue and sound. It’s a lot easier to have the score function on a separate level. Like, I just saw Copolla’s The Conversation a couple nights ago. And the score is all piano. And it was really interesting watching the editing of that, and where the cuts happen in relation to the musical form and that kind of thing, and usually they’re happening in odd places. But for this project, it’s more like an animated film, where the music is much more tightly bound to the visuals. And there’s a term that film composers use derisively called Mickey Mousing, when things are too on the nose visually and sonically. But in a context where you don’t have any other audio, there are points where you have to represent like a doorbell in some way with the musical score because there’s no recorded sound of the doorbell. So there’s certain points where I knew I would have to be more clear storytelling wise. The music really plays an integral role in shaping the story and giving the audience the information that they need to construct the narrative in their minds. So we both spent a lot of time thinking about how the music would hook up with the visuals, and where there might be either musical foreshadowing or visual foreshadowing, or when there might be a disconnect between music and visuals, when they’d be representing different things and when they’d come together. There were demands being asked of the music which would not be asked of the music in a traditional film with sound and dialogue. I tried to always be in the service of telling the story.
JM The protagonist in the film seems doomed to sell out his community, or to be co-opted as the token representative of a Brooklyn that will be destroyed in the name of progress. His heroism lies in finding an unexpected alternative. How have you faced the question of selling out or commercialism in your own artistic process? (laughter) I assume it resonates with you because it’s there . . .
DZ Well, yeah, of course, the song says, “Everybody’s got to eat sometime.” It’s very much a personal decision where you’re gonna draw the line and how far you’re gonna go with a project . . . so it’s about making choices. And it’s true that some work pays and it’s often the work that’s not the most creatively interesting, while the work that really is often doesn’t . . . The idea is something that can happen and happens to anyone to a certain extent, not just an artist. Any kind of job serves a certain purpose. So it was all about how one can deal with it, what can you do, can you fix it or not, so it’s somewhere there I guess. I was hoping that Lev, the protagonist, doesn’t come across necessarily just as an artist, but more as someone who built something with his hands, like a worker rather than artistic type, and in that sense the question is closer to anyone, not just something that an artist faces.
JM And he also mobilizes the community—the silk shop, the autobody shop.
DZ Yeah, connecting the people who are in a similar position, trying to make a living just by building something.
JM And who are getting plowed under by “progress.”
DZ Yeah which pretty much is what happens, you have a small store and then you have a mall coming and then the little guy can’t survive anymore, it happens all the time, it’s a universal thing these days. It’s really worldwide, it’s no longer worse here than anywhere else: It’s really everywhere.
DJA Yeah as we worked on this project pretty much non-stop for the last 18 months, I found myself really relating to [the protagonist] Lev as an artisan who kind of gets lost inside a really big project and is sort of wrapped up in the scale of what he’s working on and loses touch with the world around him. And that’s certainly something that was on my mind, as I was locked in my music studio ‘till four in the morning, trying to finish pieces and get parts printed and organize rehearsals for the musicians and that kind of thing. It’s very difficult to find a balance between the demands of producing work; and keeping the wolf from the door; and being engaged in your local community. I honesty have not really been as engaged as I wanted to be because of the enormous demands of this project!
JM But of course, having a show at BAM is a nice way to interface with the community—delayed gratification.
DJA It’s really exciting to see that it’s going to reach so many people.
JM I bought the narrative hook, line and sinker, I had total suspension of disbelief. I didn’t see any of it coming. I was like a kid, like, “Oh no!” (laughter) “This honest artisan is gonna work for the swine mayor, but wait, maybe there’s another way . . .”
I’m curious where you draw some of the influences for the odd meter and polyrhythmic approach; are there any particular touchstones for you in your approach to rhythm?
DJA I’m really interested in finding unusual grooves that still groove, I want people to feel it in the body. I’m not interested in doing kind of a really austere prog rock [(Progressive rock)] kind of a thing, being in 17/16, just because you can.
JM Right.
DJA But I do like it when I can pull off something that’s a little bit off kilter but still makes people feel it in their body. But the world of this piece; for me, Brooklyn has always had a bit of the spirit of Eastern Europe bound up in [it] because of the history of immigration to Brooklyn. So when I started collaborating with Daniel and seeing the designs for Lev, it’s like, ok, here’s Lev, he’s clearly from somewhere unspecified but somewhere in Eastern Europe. So I decided that he would be from somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, and that there would be strains of Balkan music making their way throughout the piece. So one of the interludes that’s played, the solo guitar peace, is actually a folk song from Croatia.
JM That was beautiful!
DJA But you know there’s a whole Balkan tradition of brass music, and given the makeup of Secret Society, it’s a natural thing to want to reference. And also, we wanted to begin the show and have interludes that could plausibly be street music. That’s such an integral part of the world and of the neighborhood. Having musician’s play in just an organic, acoustic way for people is something that could happen at any time. So each of the interludes where there was live painting, it was a groove from some kind of street music. So we had the Balkan brass band vibe in the prologue, there was one that was melodica and bass, sort of French or Italian cafe style, we had solo guitar, stuff that was more reflective, then again brass band kinds of things, like chorales, and the section with just the trombones that’s New Orleans influenced. All of the interludes were meant to represent some type of street music.
JM I loved when all the musicians switched to wood blocks and percussion . . .
DJA Yeah, [the part of the work called] Chapter 6, which is where we really see Lev involved as a craftsman, the whole band got involved in hitting stuff.
JM So, after a year and a half of solid work on this, do you guys still get along? (laughter)
DJA Yeah. Well of course there were some tense moments over the course of such a big project. But yeah, it’s very easy to work with Danijel.
DZ Yeah, for both of us. I mean I was really worried about that time in the theater, everybody was together for 12 hours a day for the whole week. Yeah, there was just this feel of building something together.
DJA For someone who is clearly a control freak, since I write all of the music for this 18-piece band . . . I’m used to working on my own in my music studio . . . So that’s my basic orientation. But despite that, I like the idea of collaboration. But, I’ve never had the opportunity to collaborate on such a large scale and for so long. And I’m very fortunate that it worked out with Danijel! It could have been horrible! And also the other members of the team who busted their ass to make this happen, and were just as emotionally invested as we were . . . that was really satisfying.
DZ That was great. For me [it’s] the same, I don’t work with people, I work on my own, mainly on graphic novels, and I like it that way. I like having complete control over what I do and if I mess up I messed up. So that was very new for me . . . being involved with a lot of people; you have to listen a lot more. Which for me was not always a natural thing, that’s where I was learning a lot.
JM How did the large scale of this project affect the emotional immediacy of art-making?
DJA Well for me there was so much more pressure . . . I have these 18 musicians. And the demands on them are extreme. Many of them turned down much more lucrative things, a trumpet player turned down a chance to tour with Springsteen to do this, there’s lots of players that turned down much more lucrative things. We spent 30 hours of music rehearsal before we even took it out to SUNY purchase. And it really felt like it wasn’t enough! For a moment I thought, Oh my God, we’re gonna let everybody down, the music is gonna sound terrible. What have I done? I’ve made it much too difficult, I’ve written this crazy hard music that no one is ever going to be able to play . . . And it’s gonna ruin all the work that Danijel has done. (laughter)
But, it’s amazing how much better things get in the two or three days before the show opens. Things go from, This is gonna be an unmitigated catastrophe, there’s no way this will work, to actually coming off, I felt very strong about the [SUNY] Purchase performance musically. And when that happens it’s really exciting.
DZ When we started this we didn’t have a clear idea of how we were gonna put it together. We had never done this before. It wasn’t like, We’ve done this on a small scale, now we’re just gonna make it big. We never did anything similar. Almost like we were creating a new language for telling the story, we’re gonna use animation, we’re gonna use live music and live painting, and we’ll try to integrate all these elements into something that actually works together as one thing, and functions within a theater space. But all of that, we didn’t know it was gonna work until . . . Saturday [the day of the preview performance]! Truly . . . Or maybe after a few days in the theater, one could tell, It could work. It’s possible. But when we were in the theater was the first time I saw the real size of this painting. I was not even sure if it was physically possible to paint in that amount of time! (laughter) So there were all these things that were completely open unknown territories, and that was exciting but also frightening at times. There were times when I thought it was going to be a monumental disaster. 
JM The act of destroying the painting you create in the performance struck me as a comment on impermanence as well as on the commodification of art . . . As you neared the end of the piece, I thought, I guess someone in this audience would pay a lot for that giant painting. And then moments later, the painting was no more. Does painting over the painting each night have emotional effects for you personally? Is it painful?
DZ Sincerely, since I know I’m gonna paint over it, no, it’s not that my heart breaks when I do that. But I do hope that people in the audience get a little bit upset about it!
JM Yeah!
DZ That really is the point, that something has just been there and disappeared in front of their eyes. And I actually did this on a smaller scale, and that’s when I first heard, a few people told me they got really upset, when the thing got painted black. And that’s where I realized it has a certain power, this act of covering something that was first created in front of the audiences eyes, and afterward, destroyed. There’s a certain effect that it has that could be used. And within this story it works perfectly well, because the story is about things that are built and things that are destroyed, and the way it effects neighborhoods, lives, people . . .
DJA Well, and it’s also funny that you mentioned the idea of auctioning off the painting, because back when we were trying to figure out how on earth we were going to finance this, that was one of [Creative Producer] Beth’s ideas, it was like, Well and we’re gonna have this beautiful painting, at the end of the night, that we could auction off, and we had to break it to her that . . . (laughter) No.
JM So she was thinking like I was thinking . . . There’s gonna be this great painting . . .
DZ Yeah and there was a little bit of that too, we live in this absurd time where paintings are getting sold for ten, twenty million dollars, and the same city, a few blocks away, people can’t buy bread. And I think it really is absurd. I don’t think that any painting in the world is worth that. And I say that as an artist, and I love art, and have the deepest appreciation for it, but I think we’re just operating on a scale that’s been completely distorted.

Danijel Zezelj, Chapter 3, acrylic on wood, 4×3 feet, 2011.


JM In my experience as an artist, I’ve been several times in the “first wave” of gentrification . . . for example in the Bay Area, I lived in the Mission District. Prior to artists like myself it was mostly working class, mostly Mexican. And the artists come because it’s affordable, and then in the next wave some people come because they want to be around an emerging scene, and then in the next wave people come because it’s now considered a good neighborhood, and each stage, the rent doubles. How do you place yourself within the theme of gentrification?
DJA Well, when I moved to Brooklyn, the neighborhood, Carroll Gardens . . . the transformations were already well underway. Restaurant row had already been established. Our landlords are actually old school Carroll Gardens [residents], they own the Red Rose restaurant, and if you are ever in there, the clientele is completely different from any other restaurant on Smith Street. A lot of people who grew up in the neighborhood and they’ve moved away, but they come back and socialize there. And our landlords, they never really leave Brooklyn, and they sort of hold court in the restaurant every night with all their old friends. And they’ve seen all of the changes. So, when we moved in, the real estate broker that we used was a guy that taught wrestling to their son in high school, that kind of vibe. So their version of the neighborhood was almost gone by the time we moved in there. And I’ve seen the continual pace of change since we moved in. Now there’s so little remaining of the old Carroll Gardens, the changes are more like, new establishments that open and then close three months later. There’s not a lot of permanence there. There’s still a couple of hold outs, Esposito’s, the pork store, Domico’s coffee shop, they’ve been there since like 1948. But on Smith Street, a lot of it is the same kind of high pressure restaurant openings that used to be more a characteristic of Manhattan. But having said all that, I don’t think the piece is primarily about gentrification, it’s one of a lot of different concerns. People tend to focus on that when the hear about the piece. But I see it as about an artist who really gets totally absorbed in a project and loses touch with his community. Communities are always in flux. There are communities that deal with the influx of new residents in a positive way, with a mutually beneficial result, and there are communities where that doesn’t work at all. So I think, mainly what we were talking about . . . the important thing is to try to make a go of it, to be in touch with the people that you live nearby, and to be aware, to participate in community life.
DZ It’s not really about gentrification in the sense that it’s been defined. But as you said communities are always in flux. The reasons why people move around are changing. Of course those waves of immigrants coming from Europe, they were not coming to America because there was a vibrant art scene in New York! They were coming because they didn’t have anything to eat back there [at home]. And still, there are people coming because they can’t survive. And they’re not coming happily here, they’re coming to survive. They see a place where, maybe I’ll find a job. Then there are people who are moving around just because they can. And the changes are just faster and faster, and it’s probably harder on people who were born there, to see they’re neighborhood disappearing in front of their eyes, than for me, because I came from somewhere else anyway, and I don’t know how long I’m staying. So I see it, but it doesn’t touch me in the same way. But, I’m also just trying to find a place to live and work and pay the rent. So what do you do?
JM I found it personally painful, and uncomfortable. At the same time, it was what I needed to do; I needed to pay cheap rent, because I’m an artist trying to live. Your piece may not be about gentrification, but i feel a part of the emotional soul of your piece confronts those issues.
DJA Well certainly the idea of finding neighborhood and community as a source of meaning in your life is very present.
JM What are some of your orchestration influences in terms of textures?

Brooklyn Babylon, 2011.

DJA Well first off I knew that I wanted to draw on a very wide palette, for this, representing some of movement from heights to plunging depths in the piece . . . so I have people playing every from like the contrabass clarinet up to piccolo at the very top of its range, just to have that sense of scale. But like a lot of the specific textures in the piece come from the demands of the narrative, wanting to recreate the atmosphere of a busy city street, walking down the street with a sense of purpose, walking through a cavernous grand hall with paintings hung. So a lot of the specific musical textures were meant to reflect what was going on through the imagery. Another thing that was really important to me was that the piece reflect my idea of Brooklyn and the musical life of Brooklyn . . . . so there’s a lot of influences drawn from what I see as the best music that’s been featured at Next Wave, and BAM, and the kind of post minimalist school that’s often been associated with the Bang on a Can composers. So there’s elements of those post minimalist rhythms, there’s a lot of Brooklyn dance punk, especially Chk Chk Chk (!!!), and LCD Soundsystem, I wanted that to be part of the fabric. And there’s a lot of independent contemporary jazz stuff that happens in Brooklyn, there’s this club Barbes that has . . . a Brooklyn-based Balkan influenced band called Slavic Soul Party, they play every Tuesday night, and there’s another group that plays Mexican brass music in that space. So a lot of the folkloric stuff was coming a little out of that Barbes scene . . . and I wanted to bring these things together in a way that made sense for me and felt like it was part of the same musical fabric. To try and combine all of the music I listen to on a daily basis and feels like it has some kind of Brooklyn-based association for me, and to synthesize that into a consistent language for the piece.
JM I was curious if you know the work of Eric Drooker and Ben Katchor.
DZ Yes, I know their work and I like it a lot. Ben Katchor, “The Jew of New York.”
JM Yeah, and Julius Knipfel, “Real Estate Photographer.”
DZ I first encountered him in Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine. Sort of this very surreal world, it’s very interesting, yeah.
JM The ghost of an earlier New York, just beneath the surface.
DZ But if you’re asking about some influences in comics, there’s always this one guy that definitely influenced me more than anyone else, José Muñoz. It’s black and white, shadow and light, very Expressionistic. The stories (with writer Sampayo) are very beautiful. And when I saw one of these stories, when I was maybe 15 years old, that’s the first time I realized the expressive potential this media could have, and it made me want to do something with telling the stories through images. I’m interested in the way the words and visuals can be combined in different ways, where you can have words that don’t necessarily follow the images, and you can create this space between words and images, almost like a third space, third dimension. That’s a beautiful thing that sometimes can be used really well in telling the story. Almost like two parallel lines, with something happening in between . . . But yes, it was very much, Italian comics, the South American school. Basically, Punk rock in Italy didn’t happen in music, it happened in comics, and it was just fascinating. This comic magazine, Frigidaire, that blew us away, like 14, 15, it was like seeing a punk concert.
JM KW Jeter is credited with coining the term “Steampunk”, in describing his own novel Infernal Devices. Darcy, your music has been associated with this term, and I assume your earlier record Infernal Machines, may be a nod to [K.W.] Jeter?
DJA No, Infernal Machines actually comes from a quote by John Phillip Sousa, a band leader and sort of the March king . . . He was the closest thing that the late 19th century had to a rock star, thousands of people would come to his concerts in the bandshell and public park and whatnot . . . he was extremely wealthy through music publishing and live appearances with his enormous band. That term comes from when he was testifying before congress about the impact of the phonographic cylinder, the Edison cylinder. He was very much against music-recording technology and thought that it would result in there not being a vocal chord left in America, because it was transforming everyone from a participatory culture of singing to one of sort of passive listening. He refers to mechanical sound reproduction as those “infernal machines” which are going night and day. And it’s funny, I knew about the quote and I was attracted to it, and I saw Larry Lessig give a speech and he used the same quote and made it the centerpiece of this speech that he was giving on remix culture. There’s all kinds of resonances for that quote, but what planted the seed was that John Phillip Souza quote about the dangers of new fangled music technology.
JM Was Sousa right? (laughter)
DJA Well, I think it’s interesting . . . any new music technology is a double-edged sword. . . When I saw that Larry Lessig was gonna use the quote, what I thought he was going to use it for was a demonstration of the paranoia that surrounds new music technologies, and how every generation something new comes around and the people from the old guard are terrified and try to stop it. But actually, Lessig does believe that Sousa was right, and there was a fundamental transformation in society from, if you wanted to hear music you had to get together with your friends and make it yourself, or you had to arrange to be in the presence of professional musicians in some capacity—that’s what you had to do if you wanted to hear music. And with the recording era (which I love, and I wouldn’t want to roll back the recording era!) it ushered in a fundamental change in the way people apprehend music, and it did go to a much more passive thing of listening to the radio or listening to the phonograph as opposed to gathering around the piano and singing it yourself. For Lessig, the remix culture of people creating their own mashups on Youtube or making their own versions of songs or even doing instructional videos on like, how to play the bassline from I Want You Back.
JM Right, right. (laughter)

DJA You know . . . sometimes technology results in a less participatory culture, as happened with the recording devices, and sometimes technology enables a more participatory culture.

Studio 360: A New Multimedia Masterpiece: Brooklyn Babylon
"This weekend, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented a new work of originality, power, and beauty that left an audience slack-jawed. Brooklyn Babylon is a collaboration between the graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj and composer Darcy James Argue, and it is destined to be considered a classic of the evolving genre of multimedia performance.
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The New York Times: Animation Joins Jazz At the Next Wave Festival
"The piece, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy, has characters and a narrative and recurring melodic themes and changes musical languages according to setting and mood: swing, dance-punk, Eastern European music. […] It is heavily planned, built of thick shadows and big-band polyphony, and it took both composer and artist most of a year to create."
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The Wall Street Journal: Razing a New Tower of Babel
"A ground-breaking new multimedia work […] Expanding his sonic palette as never before, Mr. Argue consciously integrated music from different cultures of Brooklyn for the multimedia piece by adding elements of Balkan brass, French café music and even marching-band music. Because there is no libretto, the entire narrative is told through the music and Mr. Zezelj's powerful and chilling illustrations. The shifting images act as a sort of time machine, forward-moving and seemingly implacable."
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The New York City Jazz Record
"Danijel Zezelj, standing on a catwalk, painted haunting images in black and red, using a small roller on a wide and narrow canvas as Argue’s music roared. Passages of great delicacy — piano-clarinet duets, flute chorales, unaccompanied nylon-string guitar — alternated with moments of slashing fury and awesome full-ensemble precision."
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Salon: Could Jazz Supply the Occupy Wall Street Soundtrack?
"Brooklyn Babylon’s themes range from the gentrification of Brooklyn to the story of an artist who gets so lost in his work that he loses touch with what’s happening in his community."
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Time Out New York
"A massive, brass-heavy, sax-buoyant sound moves out of the group like a living wall, interfering with our cardial tissues as it rages over us."
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"All through the piece, the visuals are projected on a wide movie screen, while Zezelj himself is up on the stage, periodically drawing a beautiful landscape that takes in the whole tableaux of the story. […] Meanwhile, Argue's music exudes that fusion of propulsive rhythm, indigo dissonance, melancholic minor intervals, and boisterous march beat—sometimes alternately, sometimes buckling up against each other—that we've heard in his earlier work. But here he shows a flair for theatricality, a promise of near-symphonic stretching."
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"Brooklyn Babylon is a true achievement for both Argue and Zezelj. It’s a total fusion of two completely separate media, combining modern technology, theatricality, sound, and imagery to create a truly unique and original work."
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"Highly compelling and socially relevant."
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"The presentation is so well integrated that, at times, it’s easy to forget you’re sitting before a live band. […] Brooklyn Babylon is a true audio-visual treat."
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Infernal Machines (2009) streaming

"It was like trying to shoot Laurence of Arabia on a Clerks budget," says the 33-year-old composer/conductor Darcy James Argue's Secret Society of his debut album, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam). Argue didn't have to tread such a quixotic path. Up until five years ago, he was performing as a pianist in small groups, playing clubs and jam sessions. Had he decided against dedicating himself full-time to Secret Society—his 18-piece big band—he might now be on the brink of releasing his first piano trio album. It's easy to imagine: Argue interprets eight to ten standards, records a couple takes of each track, mixes it in a week, and scrounges up a few nickels to pay the expenses. Darcy James Argue: Vancouver Sunrise—it could have been a nice record.
Instead, Argue opted for the arduous and the absurd, hauling 18 musicians into the recording studio for three days last December, editing and mixing for two months, and often passing off a few winks in the studio's isolation booth as a good night's sleep. To finance Infernal Machines, Argue solicited fan donations and paid for the rest out of his own pocket. With that kind of financing scheme, "you don't have a record company telling you, 'you're spending too much money,'" Argue says. "But on the other hand, you have credit card companies telling you, 'you're not making your minimums.'"
Why would Argue risk going broke to make a big band album? After all, he calls the jazz big band an "alienating fucking thing," and writes in his program notes that it's "difficult to think of any musical style that is further from the mainstream zeitgeist than contemporary big band jazz." He says he hopes his music appeals to the indie kids who love Explosions in the Sky and The Octopus Project, but he's chosen a musical form that couldn't be any more archaic. Stop a skinny-jeans-wearing sophisticate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Mission district of San Francisco and ask him if he'd like to go to a big band concert. He'll only say, yes, if he's feeling ironic. Argue asks this question and expects an earnest answer in the affirmative.
The extreme contradictions of Argue's approach are, paradoxically, where it all begins to make sense. Argue calls Secret Society a "steampunk bigband," riffing on the literary genre that imagines a world of coal-powered robots and interplanetary dirigibles (think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). This flight of imagination may endow Secret Society with nerdy cool, but it's also designed as a tongue-in-cheek way to take the audience beyond its preconceptions. "It's kind of an 'alright, we're not fooling anybody, let's try to come to terms with the fact that we're using the same instrumentation as Glenn Miller's band and move on from there.'"
Ironically, composing for the same instruments as Glenn Miller's band is precisely what allows Argue to create bold, moody, and defiantly contemporary music. Eighteen musicians offer myriad possibilities to a composer and Argue deploys them to reproduce some of the electronic studio effects that define current pop and rock recordings. In the composition "Phobos," Argue uses a cup-muted trombone to echo the main tenor sax-lead melody, acoustically mimicking an eighth-note-off digital delay—a technique that started in dub music before becoming omnipresent in pop production. On other tunes, Argue acoustically replicates the emulsifying effects of a studio filter pass. "The great part about having the big band," he says, "is being able to make those layering choices and to be able to have that expanded palette so that I can manipulate color, and timbre, and sound in a way that you can't in a jazz small group."
When Argue made Infernal Machines, he found himself with even more possibilities for sonic manipulation. Ever since Secret Society played its first show at CBGB's in May 2005, Argue has posted MP3s of the band's live dates on his blog; so when it came time to record an album, he opted to use studio production to emphasize new textures in his music. When Infernal Machines opens, a reverberating and heavily treated cajón jolts us into a dark dreamscape. A distorted electric guitar enters to amplify the spacey mood, before the horns' long, clean lines focus the music on the contrast between the acoustic and the electronic. "I hate to use this word because it sounds totally douchebaggy," Argue says, "but the cajón is a sound manifesto. If you were expecting just another standard contemporary big band live-in-the-studio kind of thing, then you've got to adjust your expectations."
On "Redeye," the album's fourth track, Argue electronically loops an acoustic guitar line that repeats constantly as the music builds and shifts. "Some of the notes in the loop fit the chords," Argue says, "and some of them grind against them, but because it's been going on for the whole tune, there's a sense that the ear doesn't really notice it. It's a way of subtlety leading up to these pretty dissonant things that don't sound dissonant because you've kind of like massaged your way in and out of them." Argue may use pop techniques, but it doesn't make his music sound "poppy"—at least not in the pejorative sense. On "Redeye," the acoustic guitar loop makes the music richer, denser, more unexpected.
Argue's music balances complexity with accessibility. He crafts through-composed epics that build elaborate narratives over twelve minutes, and then talks about wanting his music "to feel good." His fluency in jazz, classical, and popular music has given him an intimidatingly vast harmonic and melodic vocabulary, but he says it's "all gravy on top of having a strong rhythmic foundation." As quirky and intellectual as Argue can be—the track titles on Infernal Machines are based on the CIA torture of the Canadian engineer Maher Arar ("Habeas Corpus"), Zeno's dichotomy paradox ("Zeno"), and the Fung Wah Chinatown Bus ("Transit")—he sees theory as far less important than groove. The music on Infernal Machines has such a jolting, visceral energy because it manages to sound at once joyously familiar and unsettlingly alien. Those common studio effects feel ever-so-slightly twisted; the music blasts along, but in odd meters; the dissonance builds gradually, without the jagged edges of Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor. The seductiveness of Argue's music is the seductiveness of the uncanny: the recognizable-yet-strange, the interplanetary dirigible, the coal-powered robot, the big band playing the music of an imagined future. - ERIC BENSON 

  • Sep 2011
  • May 2011

  • Nov 2010

  • DARCY JAMES ARGUE is one of today’s most talked-about jazz musicians thanks to the phenomenal critical response to Infernal Machines, his Grammy-nominated debut recording featuring his 18-piece bigband, Secret Society. The record was included on more than 100 best-of-the year lists and won Best Debut honors in the prestigious Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll. Argue and Secret Society have topped the Rising Star category in the DownBeatCritics Poll for the past three years, and have won Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards for Large Ensemble of the Year and Up & Coming Artist of the Year. The group has played high-profile concerts in New York and other North American cities, as well as in Europe.
    Critics have credited him with developing “a nearly perfect creative synthesis between tradition and innovation” (John Eyles,, calling his compositions “ambitious, sprawling, mesmerizing” (Juan Rodriguez, Montreal Gazette) and noting his “big, broad musical vocabulary” (Ben Ratliff, New York Times).Time Out New York’s Hank Shteamer adds, “Argue draws on the full spectrum of modern rock, jazz and classical music” in a way that “handily transcends pastiche.”
    Formed in 2005, Secret Society evokes an alternate musical history in which the dance orchestras that ruled the Swing Era never went extinct, but remained a popular and vital part of the evolving musical landscape. Adopting a steampunk-inspired attitude towards the traditional big band, Argue refashions this well-worn instrumentation into a cutting-edge ensemble. The band’s first studio recording, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam Records) is described by Newsweek’s Seth Colter Walls as “a wholly original take on big band’s past, present and future” and Time Out New York’s David R. Adler awarded it five stars, proclaiming it “a seven-track marvel of imagination.” In his feature article on Argue for the Village Voice, Richard Gehr called it “maximalist music of impressive complexity and immense entertainment value, in your face and then in your head.”
    During the 2011 BAM Next Wave Festival, Secret Society premiered Brooklyn Babylon, an hour-long production combining live music, live painting, and animation, co-created by Argue with visual artist Danijel Zezelj. The work was pronounced “a new multimedia masterpiece” and “destined to be considered a classic” by David Krasnow, host of PRI’s Studio 360. The band’s recent Canadian tour drew praise for its “brilliant soundscapes” (J.D. Considine, Globe and Mail) and “gorgeous musical details, maneuvers and transformations” (Peter Hum,Ottawa Citizen). Their London Jazz Festival debut was declared “a contender for gig of the year” by John L. Waters in The Guardian, and their performance at the famed Moers Festival in Germany was hailed by the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger’s Martin Woltersdorf as “one of the highlights of the 38th annual festival.” Argue’s “lush and sweeping arrangements” were singled out for praise in Ken Franckling’s 2010 Newport Jazz Festival round-up for JazzTimes.
    A native of Vancouver, and former member of the Montreal jazz scene, Argue moved to Brooklyn in 2003 after earning a Master’s Degree in Boston while studying with legendary composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer. His awards include the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop Charlie Parker Composition Prize and the SOCAN/CAJE Phil Nimmons Emerging Composer Award and he has received grants from the Jerome Foundation, the American Music Center, Meet The Composer, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts.