5 questions to Darcy James Argue (composer)

Darcy James Argue will be at the Jazz Gallery tonight, Nov. 7, for two fantastic sets. What a great excuse to look back on Brooklyn Babylon, one of the best shows (and later a recording) of 2011. George Heathco did the talking…

What drew you to a project like Brooklyn Babylon?

In the fall of 2009 I was summoned for a meeting with the powers-that-be at BAM. I was told this was going to be a very casual, low-key meet-and-greet sort of thing, and I sort of naively took that at face value. Then people started patiently explaining to me that “a very casual, low-key meet-and-greet sort of thing” at BAM means “you’d better come prepared with something to pitch, you moron.” So I had to spend some time thinking about what type of large-scale project I’d be most drawn towards, and I eventually settled on the idea of collaborating with a graphic novel artist.

I had a friend who worked as an editor at [the comics company] Vertigo and she kindly provided a list of NYC-based artists whose style was more or less in my wheelhouse. As soon as I saw Danijel Zezelj’s work, I knew instantly that he had to be the one. His gritty, expressionist-influenced imagery, full of powerful light-and-shadow contrast, hit me right in the gut. I absolutely had to work with this guy!

My contact at Vertigo slipped me an advance copy of his graphic novel with Kevin Baker, Luna Park. And so when the day came, my meeting at BAM actually turned out to be a very casual, low-key meet-and-greet type of thing. It was only at the very end, as I was just about to walk out the door, that they very casually happened to mention that if I ever had an idea for a large-scale project that might be suitable for the Next Wave Festival… and so I very casually reached into my bag for my copy of Luna Park and said, “Well, funny you should mention, it just so happens I have with me… ”

Darcy James Argue - Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein

Darcy James Argue – Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein

Could you describe some of the collaborative process for creating this project with Zezelj?

A big part of the reason I wanted to work with someone who had experience in the world of sequential art is that so many of the “multimedia” projects I’ve seen have been, not to put too fine a point on it, garbage. So often what happens is that the visuals are awkwardly bolted-on after the fact by someone with no real feeling for how images and music combine in real time to create meaning. Danijel and I wanted our collaboration to be genuinely integrated — it was important to us that music, live painting, and animation would all play equal roles in constructing the narrative.

Danijel’s animation technique is really striking in that it captures the process of painting itself. He’ll paint a scene on a large plywood “canvas,” photograph the painting with a digital camera, make a small change in the painting, photograph it again, make another change, and so on, until the original painting is completely transformed.

For each chapter in the story, I would take those images, write the music, create MIDI mockups (more like “mockeries,” really), come down to Danijel’s studio, and show him how I was thinking the music and images might line up. Then Danijel would combine the stills and animate them to those aforementioned MIDI mockeries. Sometimes he’d be feeling the alignment a bit differently than what I’d conceived, or sometimes we might decide we needed more or different imagery in a particular section, or less music, or what have you — so we’d both keep refining things until we were satisfied.

This process gave me a lot more freedom than what I’d have had if I were scoring a traditional film, because I didn’t have to squeeze the music between preexisting visual beats. And Danijel wasn’t locked into animating to a fixed-in-aspic score, either. But if either of us needed to sacrifice our babies in order to serve the greater good, well, so be it!

The music on Infernal Machines (2009) presents a rather diverse array of styles and approaches over the course of seven independent pieces not necessarily composed as a single work. The music on Brooklyn Babylon is certainly no less eclectic, yet remains quite cohesive. What were some of the challenges of bringing your voice into the sphere of a large scale, dramatic, multi-media work like Brooklyn Babylon?

Brooklyn Babylon required a completely different mindset from what I’d been used to. In addition to the “local” problems of establishing mood and setting, supporting the on-screen action, establishing the emotional subtext, ensuring the most effective interplay between music and imagery, and so on, there was the “global” problem of trying to create a thematically integrated hour-long piece of music, one that necessarily encompasses a diversity of styles. We chose to set the story in a mythical version of Brooklyn — one where past, present, and future exist simultaneously — and I wanted to reflect that ultra wide scope in the music. At the same time, I wanted everything to cohere structurally. So the challenge for me was to “seed” every idea used later in the piece in the Prologue — not in a cheesy “overture-medley” kind of way, but in a more subtle, structural (but still audible) way.

It was only when I started listening to the live recording from BAM that I even started to think about whether the music made any sense as music, independently of the visual storytelling. I eventually decided that it did, swallowed deeply, and booked the studio time to record the piece.

One of the most gratifying things about the album is the way people who never experienced the multimedia production have responded to the music!

While there are a few changes to the lineup featured on Infernal Machines, the band is still largely made up of the same players and performers, very much in the tradition of big band orchestras. How has working with these same musicians influenced the many sounds and styles presented on Brooklyn Babylon?

I’ve been very fortunate to have had a relatively stable band, with many of my co-conspirators going all the way back to our first gig at CBGB in 2005. Over the years, we’ve developed a real symbiotic relationship — I’ve learned to write in a more individualistic way for the musicians in the group, and they’ve learned to perform my unreasonably difficult music. For Brooklyn Babylon, I pulled out all the stops, instrumentally — in addition to the more usual big band doubles, we’ve got folks playing piccolo, wooden flutes, contrabass clarinet, euphonium, multiple tubas, steel-string acoustic guitar, melodica, and tapan. It’s a real bestiary up there on stage!

You are one of only a handful of dedicated jazz musicians on the New Amsterdam label, one which is largely dominated by musicians and ensembles more closely associated with contemporary classical music. Has this had much of an effect on your own music, or even the types of audiences that come to a Secret Society show?

Absolutely. One of the things that made me want to be on New Amsterdam in the first place was a sense of kinship and shared vision, not just with the co-founders (Judd Greenstein, Bill Brittelle, and Sarah Kirkland Snider) but with all the other amazing artists whose work has been supported by the label, and more generally with the multifaceted musical culture that NewAm seeks to foster. My favorite jazz artists have all sought to reach listeners both inside and outside the inner circle of jazz initiates, and I think it’s now become more important than ever for jazz musicians to engage with the culture at large.