Darcy James Argue is a Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based composer and leader of Secret Society, an amazing, genre-defying 18-piece band. He’s also a long-time Finale user (and beta tester). Darcy appeared previously on this blog in 2010, to discuss Secret Society’s debut release, “Infernal Machines.” Like its predecessor, their 2013 release, “Brooklyn Babylon,” also received Juno and Grammy Award nominations, and appeared in many “best of” polls.
Last fall Secret Society released “Real Enemies,” an incredible sonic exploration of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and our modern existence. The new release has already received a Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and widespread praise like this:
“A work of furious ambition…deeply in tune with our present moment.” – The New York Times
Darcy and I connected recently to discuss the new release and music notation.
What was the initial inspiration for the “Real Enemies” project?
After the success of my first multimedia work, “Brooklyn Babylon,” I was invited to develop another project for the BAM Next Wave Festival. I was casting around for a suitable topic. I thought it might be interesting to deal with non-fictional sources. At my girlfriend’s recommendation, I read Katherine Olmsted’s book “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11” and loved it.
I gave a copy to my co-creator, writer-director Isaac Butler, and said, “This probably sounds crazy, but read this book and tell me if you think there’s a show in there.” He read it and came back and told me, “That does sound crazy… but, yes, I think there is a show in there.” From there, we recruited our third co-creator, filmmaker Peter Nigrini, and together we hammered out the basic structural framework. Once we got the green light from BAM, it was off to the races.
Where do you live on the conspiracy continuum? Do you think most of society is too paranoid or not paranoid enough? Does the possible veracity of a conspiracy theory influence your interest in it?
There’s a character in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” who has a poster on his wall that says: “Yes I’m paranoid — but am I paranoid enough?” I think that captures the dynamic pretty well: to the conspiracy theorist, skepticism is naivete, countervailing evidence is just more proof that they don’t want you to know what’s really going on, et cetera.
Conspiracy theorists don’t lack for information — they often have a staggering array of facts and pseudo-facts at their disposal to back up their claims, or at least cast doubt on the generally accepted version of events. What they lack is a sound architecture of critical thinking: the ability to evaluate sources and claims objectively.
Instead, they reflexively reject anything that doesn’t fit nicely into their conspiratorial web of belief. Ironically, this makes conspiracy theorists (who are so invested in seeing themselves as highly skeptical individuals) easy marks for politicians who would exploit them to further their own cynical ends — by eroding faith in good government and in democratic norms, say.
It’s worth remembering that we are all prone to motivated reasoning and obstinacy in the face of facts that contradict our existing beliefs. Conspiratorial ideas cut across all kinds of social and political divides — they aren’t just limited to the left or the right, or to one segment of society. At the same time, while we tend to use “conspiracy theorist” as a term of derision, there are real conspiracies out there, including ones we don’t know about yet.
So, I mean, are we being paranoid enough? How much paranoia is healthy, and at what point does it turn toxic? “Real Enemies” tries to investigate these kinds of questions, to scrutinize how we form beliefs about the world… while also leveraging the audience’s paranoia for our own ends. (Purely artistic ones, I assure you.)
You have said that the album “draws heavily on 12-tone techniques, but the wide-ranging score exhibits a gleeful disregard for how those techniques have traditionally been deployed.” Can you talk about that? How does your use of harmony differ from what traditionalists think of as big band music?
If you’re going to write a piece of music about conspiracy theories, there really is no choice but to make it a 12-tone piece! “Real Enemies” derives entirely from a single 12-tone row — vertically, horizontally, and structurally — but unlike a lot of canonical 12-tone music, it’s not trying to deliberately avoid or undermine any sense of harmonic stability. Instead, the row is used to organize a highly chromatic quasi-tonal language, a sort of “shadow harmony” that sounds like a dark, distorted reflection of traditional harmony.
Each chapter is in a different 12-tone “key” based around a particular row form, and the progression of “keys” follows the same sequence as prime form of the row. Because jazz is a highly chromatic language, one can extract chords from the 12-tone row that are oddly reminiscent of jazz chords, or to construct melodies that sound somewhat like idiomatic jazz melodies, and so on.
Are there composers you admire whose work influenced Real Enemies?
The score to “Real Enemies” is dedicated to film composers David Shire and Michael Small, who took the techniques of musical modernism and adapted them for the screen in incredibly inventive and effective ways. The scores they wrote for classic 1970’s films like “The Conversation,” “The Parallax View,” and “All The President’s Men” (among others) were instrumental in shaping our modern idea of what paranoia sounds like.
What was the inspiration for the Latin feels interspersed throughout the recording? How did you notate those for the rhythm section? Were any grooves or feels left to the players or did you through-compose them?
The middle section of “Dark Alliance” is based (with permission!) on a song by the Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, “Un Son Para Mi Pueblo,” which celebrates the overthrow of the dictator Somoza in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1978-79. (Although everything is still filtered through the 12-tone row!) The groove is a Nicaraguan take on són, which we primarily associate with Cuba — there’s a kind of pan-Latin revolutionary solidarity being expressed here.
“Casus Belli” is inspired by a curious 1958 record made by the great New York-based Afro-Cuban bandleader Machito, called “Vacation at the Concord” — it was a promotional album designed to hype the Concord, a lakeside resort 90 miles north of New York City, where Machito’s orchestra was in residence.
I’m picturing a group of CIA operatives sitting around the pool drinking daiquiris while plotting false flag operations that could be used as a pretext for a U.S. invasion of Cuba. The groove is a sped-up cha-cha-chá (sometimes disrupted by an extra eighth note added to the end of the phrase) that alternates between two keys a tritone apart. It eventually moves forward into present day speculation about false flag operations by way of a Afro-Cuban-inflected metal riff.
Like most of my music, the rhythm section parts here tend to be fairly specific, though there’s also room for individuality within the style. I also gave the players some source recordings to use as a reference, and our drummer, Jon Wikan, overdubbed many layers of percussion on both “Dark Alliance” and “Casus Belli.”
Editor’s note: Check out this behind-the scenes view of the recording of “Real Enemies”:
Can you describe some of your notational models or goals?
Clarity, clarity, clarity. As both composer and copyist, my job is to make the music as clean and readable as possible for the musicians who will perform it — not to impress other composers with the complexity or hyper-specificity of the notation.
I think every composer should read Clinton Roemer’s “The Art of Music Copying” — particularly jazz composers, of course, but really everyone could benefit from what he has to say about laying out measures on the page to make the phrasing maximally clear. There’s a reason why this style of part-copying became standard for film scoring sessions and the like — it systematically removes as many barriers as possible between the page and the player.
Can you share an excerpt of the score or a part so readers can have a glimpse at your engraving/copying style? Maybe including something that show some unusual direction given to soloists?
Here’s a page from Chapter 9 of “Real Enemies,” titled “Apocalypse Is a Process,” which is inspired by doomsday cults, like Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple.
This is a rubato passage, with tenor sax blowing (Sam Sadigursky, on the recording) accompanied by a churchy chorale from a trio of winds (piccolo, flute, and clarinet) plus a Yamaha TX7 synth playing a cheesy 1980’s pipe organ patch. The trumpets are all in Harmon mutes and playing these little three-note bursts into the sound holes into the frame of the piano (with the sustain pedal down), creating an eerie resonant sound — a bit like a ghostly Greek chorus commenting on the action.
Additionally, a pair of trombones in straight mutes play a kind of staccato-glissando, where they gradually speed up and slow down their tonguing speed while slowly moving the slide.
Do you plan to publish the score?
The complete score for “Real Enemies” will eventually be available from my website, where I have also released the score from my previous multimedia piece, “Brooklyn Babylon,” and all of the works from my first recording, “Infernal Machines.” It may take some time to get “Real Enemies” up there, though — as someone who takes engraving seriously, it is a very big job to prepare these scores to a high standard.
What do you like about Finale? What would you change?
As a Finale user for over 20 years now — I started with version 3.0 back in 1994! — it’s become an essential, near-automatic part of my workflow. Even most of my sketches are in Finale. I know some folks romanticize pencil-and-staff-paper, but the fact is I can almost always get the ideas out more quickly and with fewer roadblocks using Finale.
I love being able to compose in Scroll View, without having to worry about how the music will be laid out on the page until the piece is finished. I love being able to easily shift music horizontally to try out a different rhythmic displacement, or take ideas that I wrote in one time signature and try superimposing them on a different meter.
I love the incredibly powerful and useful third-party plug-in suites, like TGTools, JW Plugins, and Patterson Plug-Ins — I definitely could not live without TGTools Align-Move, JW Copy Part Layout, and Patterson Beams! I love how robust Finale’s linked parts are — I think back to the bad old days of extracting every part and I shudder.
Most of all, I love the amount of control Finale gives me over every aspect of the notation. I have rarely encountered a notational problem that could not be solved in one way or another. Sometimes it takes some fairly drastic kludges, but there is almost always a solution!
If I could wave a magic wand and improve Finale in one specific area, it would be smarter collision avoidance — especially vertically. As a large ensemble composer, I’m usually dealing with 19 or 20 staves per system, and cleaning up my scores (so that the slurs and hairpins from a low bass trombone passage don’t collide with the guitar staff, for example) is a very time-intensive job. This is a task I hope future versions of Finale will handle more intelligently and automatically.
Have Finale tip to share?
In my experience, the number one thing you can do to increase your productivity in Finale is really learning your metatools. If you’re not using them already (and surprising numbers of Finale users seem unaware of them!) getting to a point where you are applying dynamics, articulations, smart shapes, staff styles, transpositions, etc. using metatools will absolutely change your life.
I also love all the little extras — like the ability to double-tap a metatool key to rapidly swap out expressions, the drag-enclose method of applying mass articulations, the option-down arrow method of copying a dynamic all the way down a score, using the “-” key to reapply your most recently-added expression — all of these are enormous time-savers.
You’ve been a Finale Beta tester for quite some time. What’s that like? Why do you do it?
Like anyone who depends on Finale for their work, I have strong ideas about what kind of fixes and improvements I’d most like to see. It’s great to be part of a community of developers and experienced beta testers where we can hash out new features and contribute to their implementation.
Finale’s very sophisticated handling of linked parts, for instance, are the result of refinements developed through a lively dialog between the MakeMusic team and the fine group of beta testers they have assembled.
Where can people hear you perform this music? Will many of the performers on the CD join you?
Certainly. Secret Society will be performing music from “Real Enemies” on January 6 at the Winter Jazzfest in New York. On February 28, we’ll be presenting the full multimedia incarnation of “Brooklyn Babylon” — live music, live painting, and animation — with my co-creator, visual artist Danijel Zezelj at Penn State.
And on March 23, we’ll be performing in Boston as part of the Celebrity Series. If people want to know where we’re playing, I’d encourage them to sign up for the Secret Society mailing list.
If you’ve read this far and haven’t heard the music yet, you need to. Learn more at secretsocietymusic.org.
Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein