"It can be maddening to deal with a political environment where it seems like the truth has no purchase anymore," says Darcy James Argue, the hyper-literate composer who leads the Secret Society, a postmodern big band. Argue has spent a lot of time recently thinking about that maddening environment — not just as a matter of civic engagement during a chaotic election season, but also because it forms the crux of Real Enemies, his most recent work.
Commissioned and premiered by the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Real Enemies began its life as a multimedia oratorio of dizzying sensory overload. Argue created the music in partnership with the writer-director Isaac Butler and the theatrical film designer Peter Nigrini. Their concept was both wildly ambitious and unexpectedly timely, revolving around the history and perpetuity of conspiratorial thought in American life.
That field of study encompasses an extraordinary swath of 20th and 21st-century politics and culture, including McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s; the moon landing and its doubters, a tenacious bunch; Reaganism and the Iran-Contra affair of the '80s; even the birther movement that serves as a rickety bridge from the Obama era into the current presidential administration. Among the source material for the work are Richard Hofstadter's landmark 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and (especially) the Kathryn Olmsted book that provided the title for the piece.
Musically, Argue drew inspiration from the conspiracy-rich filmography of the post-Watergate 1970s: movies like Francis Ford Coppola's The Manchurian Candidate and Alan Pakula's The Parallax View. The music in Real Enemies makes extensive use of the 12-tone compositional techniques that informed those film scores — a serial musical language that, in classical circles, has been a source of its own conspiratorial murmurings.
"You have all of Europe falling into this existential crisis," Argue explains, "and really starting the world over again with a system of composing that was based only on the relationship of those tones to one another, and not based on this hierarchy of chords." He adds, a bit slyly: "There is a conspiracy theory about 12-tone composers, that they formed a secret cabal to control American serious composition for years and years and years."
At the time that Real Enemies premiered, late in 2015, there was just under a year to go before the American presidential election, but the political discourse was already heated. Reviewing the staged production for the New York Times, I pronounced it "something close to a perfect collaboration" between music, text and image — as well as "a work of furious ambition that feels deeply in tune with our present moment," though no one knew just how in tune, at the time.
Argue released Real Enemies in album form last September, to further acclaim, from outlets like Pitchfork and Stereophile. The critic David Hajdu began his review in The Nation by declaring: "I cannot imagine a work in any art form that could evoke the particular madness of our time with more potency."
Real Enemies is up for a Grammy for Best Large Ensemble Jazz Album, and also nominated for a Juno Award — the most prestigious honor for Canadian musicians, a shadowy constituency to which Argue belongs. Hear excerpts of the album, along with some exposition by Argue, in this au courant and thought-provoking episode of Jazz Night In America. No tinfoil hat required (but we don't judge).
Darcy James Argue (composer and conductor), Dave Pietro (piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, soprano sax, alto sax), Rob Wilkerson (flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax), Peter Hess (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Carl Maraghi (baritone saxophone), Seneca Black (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jonathan Powell (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jason Palmer (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet, flugelhorn), Darius Christian Jones (trombone), Jennifer Wharton (bass trombone), Sebastian Noelle (acoustic and electric guitar), Adam Birnbaum (acoustic and electric guitar), Matt Clohesy (upright bass and electric bass), Jon Wikan (drum set, cajón, percussion).
Producers: Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman, Colin Marshall; Editors: Nikki Boliaux, Colin Marshall; Audio Editor: Suraya Mohamed; Concert Audio Engineer: David Tallacksen; Concert Videographers: Nicole Conflenti, Nickolai Hammar, Chris Parks, AJ Wilhelm; Documentary Videographers: Nicole Conflenti, Colin Marshall; Documentary Audio: Josie Holtzman; Senior Producer, Radio: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundmann, Amy Niles; Special Thanks: National Sawdust; Funded in Part By: The Argus Fund, Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wyncote Foundation; Music: Real Enemies, Composed by Darcy James Argue.