Darcy James Argue’s ‘Brooklyn Babylon’

A musical investigation of urban dysfunction

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society performing during the 2011 Montreal International Jazz Festival
Darcy James Argue

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Even within BAMcafé, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s performance space that presents a wide variety of artists on weekend evenings for free, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society seems something of an unorthodox booking. With his back to the audience, the 38-year-old Argue conducts his 18-piece ensemble alternating between a euphoric composure and animated fervor, gesticulating with his arms, swaying on his feet, contorting and relaxing his expressions as he puts his charges-all manner of brass and woodwinds, drums and percussion, guitars, piano and the occasional melodica-through their paces. As the music unfurls, filling the room with its largeness, it doesn’t take long for an SRO crowd to fill the space as well.

The music the troupe is recreating is Brooklyn Babylon, an elaborately structured, interlinked assembly of songs and interludes Argue describes as an “hour-long through-composed suite about the decline of urban communities.” In the work-the recording of which follows 2009’s Infernal Machines, nominated for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammy-Argue touches upon elements of classical music, indie rock and big-band jazz. As an entity, however, the suite leans toward none of the above in particular. Although the piece is entirely instrumental, it builds on a backstory centering on an epidemic of urban displacement, a scenario wherein a master carpenter committed to building a carousel atop what will become the world’s tallest building “finds himself torn between his personal ambition and his allegiance to the community,” according to the liner notes.

There’s more to it than that though. “The dynamic that we’re referencing is pretty universal,” says Argue, a Vancouver native now based in Brooklyn. “It’s less about gentrification per sé than the struggle of individual artists and their relationship to their neighborhood and the people around them and their places in the community. Just by us moving into neighborhoods that we can afford, we end up changing them irrevocably.”

There’s a visual component to Brooklyn Babylon that was not part of the BAMcafé performance but was integral to its conception. Argue collaborated on the piece with Croatian graphic novelist and painter Danijel Zezelj, who created artworks that complement the music and its cross-section of sentiments and temperatures. They began working together in 2009 and Brooklyn Babylon premiered at BAM’s 2011 Next Wave Festival, with Zezelj’s live painting and projected animation providing optical stimulation to augment Argue’s composition. (Samples of Zezelj’s art for the project are reproduced in the CD package.) “I was thinking about music like Debussy’s Jeux or Stravinsky’s Petrushka and how the musical storytelling is very bound up in the onstage action,” Argue says. “But then I started to listen to the piece as music and I thought maybe we could put this out there.”

Although Argue, who has been compared to such titans of large-ensemble jazz composition and arrangement as Gil Evans and Duke Ellington, is accustomed to seeing his group described as a big band, he dismisses that designation. “The jazz big band was a product of a very specific cultural and technological time and place,” he says, “and the only reason it’s sustained itself through to today is because of academia-every college has a big band-and a bunch of freaks and weirdos who’ve decided against all odds that we’re going to try to make music for jazz big band even though it makes no sense.

“It really is a pain in the ass,” he adds about leading a band of this size. “It’s a totally unreasonable way to make music. And in terms of having anything resembling instant gratification, it’s pretty much the opposite of that. You spend all this time alone writing out the music in great detail for 18 players, and it can be a months-long process just to hear five minutes of music. But I was attracted to the possibilities because there are a lot of things that you can do with the architecture of the music in a large ensemble that really wouldn’t make sense for smaller forces.”

Financed in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign that far exceeded its $10,000 goal, Brooklyn Babylon was recorded at New York’s Avatar Studios with all of the musicians playing live. (“That’s the only way to do it, and there aren’t a lot of studios where you can do it,” says Argue, noting that there were also minimal overdubs.) But although the music has been performed live, both with and without Zezelj’s art accompanying, the sheer cost of travel and the logistics of coordinating schedules of so many musicians precludes the notion of a large-scale tour. Still, Argue, who admittedly doesn’t make his living solely from the group, holding on to a day job as a music copyist, is doing all he can to get Brooklyn Babylon heard. And he’s holding out hope that more touring is in the band’s future.

“It’s a piece that has a lot of resonance all over the world,” he says. “It’s set in Brooklyn but it’s not really tied to it. We’re talking about something bigger than just what’s happening in this borough at this moment. So I really hope that there’s a life to this thing and we get to bring it to other places.”