Darcy James Argue: The Enemy Within

Darcy James Argue strives to understand the nature and motives of the conspiracy theorist

Darcy James Argue (photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
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Darcy James Argue (photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
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Darcy James Argue's Secret Society performs Real Enemies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM Harvey Theater (photo by Ed Lefkowicz)
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Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Ken Franckling)
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“Shall I Reveal a World?”

Paraphrased from The Crying of Lot 49—Thomas Pynchon’s classic conspiracy-theory novella—these five words take center stage during “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” the fourth movement of Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies. More precisely, they take center screen: the nucleus of the 15 massive screens, mounted in the collective shape of an inverted trapezoid above the heads of Argue’s acclaimed 18-member big band, Secret Society.

Indeed, those words aren’t a bad summary of Real Enemies, inasmuch as a multimedia epic can be summarized in an epigram. The production is a three-way collaboration between composer Argue, writer-director Isaac Butler and video artist Peter Nigrini. Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), it premiered there last November. (The music is now a standalone, released via New Amsterdam Records as Argue and Secret Society’s third album.) Its subject: the nature and psychology of conspiracy theory. Or, if you like, of the conspiracy theorist.

“I was just really struck by … the vicious circle of conspiratorial thinking,” Argue says. “Groups that are legitimately discriminated against, and are legitimately put under surveillance—they have real enemies, in the words of the title. And how that tended to fuel an overreaction on their part that would launch an additional conspiracy theory. There’s a real circularity there—how paranoia brings more paranoia, creates more self-reinforcing circles. That was an attractive framing device, musically and thematically.”

For the fully staged production, the men in the band are clean-shaven and dressed in suits and fedoras, the women in professional dresses and attire: the costumes of the shadowy authority figure. On the screen next to “SHALL I REVEAL A WORLD?” flash patriotic photos: Mount Rushmore, the American flag, the Statue of Liberty. Then the whole bank of screens dissolves into images and words meant to evoke Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s notorious mind-control program. Beneath, on Argue’s round rostrum, into which is set the image of a clock face, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis and trombonist Jacob Garchik circle, playing dissonant, menacing counterpoint with the rhythm section rumbling underneath them. That is, until the screens suddenly explode into blinding white light, followed by images of storm clouds and snippets from The Manchurian Candidate, and the entire orchestra plays a terrifying blast of noise.

The cacophony isn’t incidental. Argue’s music is written in the twelve-tone style, the 20th-century modernist concept that assigns equal importance to every pitch in the tempered scale. (It’s also a concept whose dominance of academia in the 1950s and ’60s inspired a conspiracy theory of its own—that a sinister cabal of twelve-tone composers had conquered the university sphere.) “It couldn’t have been anything else, could it?” Argue chuckles. “If you’re going to write an extended piece of music about conspiracy theories and you don’t write it in twelve-tone, you’re doing a bad job.”

Real Enemies is Argue’s second multimedia collaboration, and his second commission from BAM. The first on both counts was Brooklyn Babylon, a co-creation with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, which premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2011. (Brooklyn Babylon became Argue’s sophomore album release in 2013.) It was a great success, enough so that BAM invited Argue to pitch another multimedia commission. Argue knew immediately that he wanted to do something completely different this time, and he also knew with whom he wanted to work.

Butler, who counts Argue among his closest friends, is an experienced theatrical director in New York; he also has a master’s degree in creative nonfiction. “I had worked on Brooklyn Babylon,” he says, “and Darcy wanted me to be a co-creator on this one.”

In late 2013 they began brainstorming ideas, but nothing clicked. Inspiration finally struck when Argue’s girlfriend, journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, recommended the book she had just finished: Kathryn Olmsted’s Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11. “Lindsay suggested that ‘this might give you some ideas about things you might explore in a multimedia vein,’” Argue says.

It did. Argue passed the book on to Butler. “I said, ‘This may sound crazy, but this book—tell me if you think there’s a show in it.’”

“I was looking at what I could do with non-fiction that wasn’t a memoir, and wasn’t traditional journalism,” Butler says. “What could you do that was an essayistic approach—but also onstage, because I also come from a theatre-directing background. I was like, ‘I think the challenge of creating a show that is inspired by this material is really fascinating, and so yeah. Let’s do it.’”

They immediately began preliminary work, spending about three months doing research into the conspiracy-theory universe. Books like Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia and Milton William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse became their diet, as did hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. (“Conspiracy theorists really like to make documentaries and put them on YouTube,” Butler says.) They also laid out a theatrical structure for the piece, based around the circular nature of conspiratorial thinking—hence the clock face on which Argue stands while conducting.

“The idea that time is forever running out, and that there’s an urgency to the paranoid’s call to action, and the symbolism of the doomsday clock,” he says, “that was an important part of our exploration, our beginning visual metaphor.”

In February 2014, BAM gave them a green light. The next step was to find a visual collaborator, who came courtesy of Beth Morrison, the producer behind both Brooklyn Babylon and Real Enemies. “Assembling the creative team is something that I do,” she says. “And I gave them a list of video designers for them to meet and see, and Peter Nigrini was the one that they chose to work with.”

Though it wasn’t exactly his usual milieu—designing projections for live theatre—Nigrini was immediately taken with the project. “Their basic kernel of an idea at that time just seemed so fascinating,” he asserts. “And I had seen Brooklyn Babylon and it was great, so I was both excited by the work Darcy had done in the past but also by how different this was. It seemed to be in some exciting middle place. Is it theatre? No, it’s really a concert, but a concert that has theatrical aspects. It occupied a great unknown place that I thought was exciting.”

“It was Peter’s idea that the video part should be broken into 15 screens,” Butler says. “It looks like a movie screen that’s exploded. And sometimes that would show one image, and sometimes it would show 15 images.”

With three collaborators in place, Real Enemies now took a three-pronged approach. Butler distilled their many long conversations to write what they call “the spine.” “It was a treatment for each chapter—mainly it was about what we would see on the 15 video screens,” he explains. “What images, or what we would be referencing. Sometimes it would be very specific, like ‘We see this headline’—with a link to the headline—and sometimes it’s ‘We see images of security cameras.’”

By the time they were finished, Real Enemies was, by design, an overwhelming sensory experience. In addition to the big band and its intense, dissonant music, the video contained hundreds of images, some in brief flashes and others in extended film clips. Some of the imagery had corresponding sound bites: John F. Kennedy extolling the evils of the Soviet Union, Nancy Reagan telling kids to “just say no” to drugs. The screens were set so that a spectator’s perspective altered their engagement with the show. “Every place you were sitting in the audience, the show would look a little different,” Butler says. “Subjectivity was really in the set design.”

That subjectivity was important: Real Enemies makes a point of not taking a true-or-false stand on any of the conspiracies it presents. It wants not to sell or discredit the theories, but to suggest how they are developed and why that development makes belief in them possible. “We really wanted to do this thing where we were providing disparate pieces of information, and the audience was connecting the dots,” Butler says. “The audience is going to have to form the connections in these things. And sometimes they wouldn’t be able to. Sometimes they wouldn’t want to. Sometimes it’s really spelled out, but we didn’t guide them.”

“There are some red herrings,” Nigrini says. “‘Go ahead, try and make a connection between these two ideas! We have no idea what the connection is—but we dare you to try to make one.’ That was really the founding principle: visual disparity and the sort of cacophony that is our modern-day visual world, and then manifesting this idea of the audience’s brain trying to make sense of it and constructing their own theories.”

There is a distinct logic to its progression. It begins with information that we know to be true—the U.S. surveillance state, the Kennedy Assassination, Iran-Contra. “The stuff that might be a bit more of a heavy lift for the audience, we placed a little bit later, so there’s this cumulative process of paranoia building through the music and the visuals,” Argue says. “We hope that we’re able to boil the frog, put the audience in a receptive frame of mind, so that by the time we get to [the idea that most of the world’s most powerful people are really] lizard people from Alpha Centauri, some people are thinking, ‘Well … maybe?’”

In constructing the musical component, Argue had an additional research agenda. He spent time combing over the history of twelve-tone music, and of American twelve-tone music in particular. “There really was quite a huge diversity,” he says. “Obviously you have canonical twelve-tone composers like Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, and then you have composers like [Igor] Stravinsky or Aaron Copland who were not really part of the twelve-tone cabal, exactly, but at various points in their careers felt compelled to compose twelve-tone works, and what they did with that was really interesting. So I really tried to explore this as much as I could.”

Still, Argue recognized that he was working in the jazz idiom, and Real Enemies is rich in the blues, a musical element that neither Brooklyn Babylon nor its predecessor, 2009’s Infernal Machines, had much of.

“It’s difficult to conceive the ways that you can do something new with the blues, or have something meaningful, emotionally meaningful, without sounding trite,” he says. “I didn’t set out originally to have blues progressions play so much of a role in the piece, but as I was exploring, I came up with three tone-row progressions that sounded like blues progressions to me. And that sort of changed the tenor of the piece: I realized I could weave it through the piece to give it an earthiness and bring it back to some refracted sense of the jazz tradition—especially composers like Duke and Billy Strayhorn, Mingus, Monk and George Russell, who found ways to abstract the blues, to use the blues form to justify or support highly chromatic material.

“It was a real ‘a-ha’ moment: It allowed me to access a part of the jazz tradition that I hadn’t previously accessed in my own work.”

If there’s an unfortunate aspect to Real Enemies, it’s that it has turned out to be far more timely than even its authors knew.

After the BAM premiere run (and previous to that, a workshop preview performance at Virginia Tech), Real Enemies’ next full-scale performance took place at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. There were two performances, and the first was on the night of the Brexit vote in the U.K. “The politics of fear play on an international stage,” Argue says. “We’ve seen the results of that, stoking all kinds of fear of the other—not aliens from Alpha Centauri but illegal aliens and refugees, a force that’s going to undermine the unity of the great nations of Europe.”

It also hits close to home, says Butler, whose next theatrical gig was as director of Mike Daisey’s The Trump Card. “When we made Real Enemies, we did not know that our election cycle would be dominated by a conspiracy theorist running for president, whose entire run would constantly traffic in the classic rhetoric of paranoia and conspiracy,” he says. “We started building it two years before Donald Trump declared. When we started working on Real Enemies, my biggest doubt was that we were dealing in a subject matter that was very esoteric. Do people really care about this issue? And of course by the time we premiered it, it was prophetic.”

“Isaac and I were both a lot more bullish on Trump’s chances than a lot of professional political observers,” Argue says. “We both knew … that there was a path to power for someone that was going to say that stuff openly and overtly.”

Real Enemies, then—perhaps to its creators’ dismay—is more than just an artistic success. It’s poised to be a chilling chronicle of its time. “Watching all this stuff unfold, I feel a little bit Cassandra-like,” Butler says. “This show ends talking about birtherism—the start of Donald Trump’s serious flirtation with running for president. So that’s been really weird.” The world the project reveals, it seems, is the one in which we live.

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