We all know, deep down, that classifying music is a fool’s game, yet we can’t seem to stop ourselves, can we? A friend tells us, “Oh, I love this (band/composer/musical entity)” and the first thing we ask, almost in spite of ourselves, is “What do they sound like?”. We can use cool-sounding adjectives, comparisons, and variations on other descriptions we’ve heard before, but it’s really all for naught until we actually hear the music. In the case of Darcy James Argue, it’s especially easy to get hung up on classification. At first glance, it’s easy: big-band jazz. Sure, he doesn’t sound much like any big band, past or present, but there’s horns and it swings sometimes, right? But listen closer, and it’s clear that the label doesn’t quite fit. There are too many shifting time signatures, too many rock riffs, too many black clouds of atonal darkness. So it’s more like modern classical, right? After all, it’s heavily composed, without much repetition. But that doesn’t work either. Argue sits nicely in the Ellingtonian tradition of writing tunes around key soloists whose style he knows well, allowing them to improvise over his through-composed works. And hey, if you think about it, even Ellington wasn’t so easy to categorize: if you had never heard jazz or the blues before, but then heard Such Sweet Thunder, you’d probably think it sounded like Debussy with a fat backbeat. So there’s improvisation and swing and all the instruments people identify as “jazz” instruments…can’t really call it classical either. So what’s left?
The truth is that Argue’s music is best classified as unclassifiable. As a composer he has no patience for the shackles of genre, and instead writes with a novelistic sense of narrative. The modern zeitgeist seems to be about mash-ups and border-crossing, but I disagree. I think it’s about the slow revelation that musical genres, as defined by stylistic boundaries, are artificial constructions whose existence is no longer valid (if indeed it ever was). As we all come to realize that these constricting lines are useless, we’ll be seeing more musicians like Argue. He writes in a jazz dialect, but his narrative structures have more in common with Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich than other big-band progressives (Dave Holland, John Hollenbeck, etc.). His bone-breaking riffs over shifting times recall prog-metal mavens Meshuggah, while his sweet fluttering flutes and gentle melodica runs come straight out of classic Disney soundtracks. His ensemble looks like a big band, but his guitarists play more like Jonny Greenwood than Freddie Green. Seeing the group, dubbed the Secret Society, celebrate their seventh anniversary at Le Poisson Rouge, it became clear that all those comparisons, all those labels, miss the point. Argue sounds like Argue.
The first piece of the night, “Blowout Prevention”, might as well have been a mission statement. Written in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, his slick, noxious harmonies vomited out of the horns in gloopy surges. Many musicians write music inspired by their politics, which is something I’m often divided on. Without a verbal element, it’s usually difficult to see what connection there is between a composer’s cause and the music itself, and it’s something that often annoys me, like they’re trying to assign greater meaning to a piece that, taken by itself, sounds like it could be about anything. But Argue, whose programmatic nature suggests a parallel universe in which he writes metaphor-heavy science fiction, excels at shaping politics into sound. His concerns about the oil spill, and the ability of one company to wreak such havoc on nature, fueled the synesthetic opener. “Ferromagnetic”, his, uh, ode of sorts to Blackwater leader Erik Prince, rumbles and thumps and screeches like the fanatical mercenary it mocks. The brass sounds like they’re waging a modern crusade: the winds don’t seem to care much for the Constitution.
Normally I don’t think you can really communicate complex and specific ideas through music, and while it’s clearly impossible to get actual specifics from Argue’s pieces, knowing his intention yields greater depth to his already heady sonic adventures.
The centerpiece of the evening was a medley of music from Argue’s latest work, Brooklyn Babylon, a collaboration with graphic artist Daniel Zezelj. A programmatic suite which tells the tale of Lev, a carousel engineer, freshly immigrated from eastern Europe and living in Brooklyn. Contracted by the city to crown a colossal, Burj Kalifa-like building with a carousel, Lev initially throws himself at the opportunity. Of course, nothing can remain stable in Argue’s sonic world, and eventually the construction wreaks such havoc that it begins to threaten the soul of the city. I saw the work in it’s entirety earlier this year at BAM (for our review, written by David Pearson, click here), and was blown away by it then… but seeing it in a small, intimate space, however abbreviated, was entirely different. The Brooklyn Babylon material does everything Argue does well, just more intensely. The darkness is darker, often outright evil. The beauty is more serene, usually heartbreaking. Even older pieces in the set, like the bright, driving “Transit” and the paradoxical “Zeno” (written around Ryan Keberle’s melodic, earthy trombone work) felt extra-energized following the Babylon medley. There isn’t just drama in this work, there’s moral ambiguity and character development on a level one doesn’t usually hear in instrumental music.
Argue is running a Kickstarter project to help fund the record, which you can (and should) donate to here. To put it in sci-fi terms, Argue is like a musical version of The Doctor in his TARDIS: he can, and does, travel anywhere in musical time and space, yet he always remains utterly himself. Saying that he crosses borders implies that he sees borders, but to him, it’s all just one great big universe/continuum waiting to be explored. He is a vibrant and highly original composer, whose work is a vital contribution to today’s art-music scene, but more importantly, it’s just plain ass-kickingly awesome to listen to.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.