Review: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s "Real Enemies"

Brooklyn premiere of multimedia work inspired by conspiracy theories

Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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Darcy James Argue Secret Society, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, Nov. 2015
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In promo blasts, composer Darcy James Argue has always referred to his bandmates in Secret Society as “co-conspirators.” It was perhaps inevitable that this tongue-in-cheek motif would blossom into an elaborately staged multimedia work inspired by conspiracy theories, “Real Enemies,” which runs Nov. 18-22 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Taking its title from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, Argue’s piece was co-conceived with writer and director Isaac Butler and film designer Peter Nigrini. The execution was impeccable: Argue’s 18-piece band roared and whispered through 12 brutally dissonant yet often beautiful movements, with the leader standing in the middle of a large doomsday clock and the band arrayed around him in a semicircle. The funky, swinging, sometimes Latin-tinged music, the minimal choreography, the lighting and scenery (by Maruti Evans), even the band’s old-school suits, trench coats, fedoras and aqua-tinted dresses (costumes by Sydney Maresca): All of it was unrelentingly creepy.

Soloists Tim Ries (alto saxophone), John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Nadje Noordhuis and Matt Holman (flugelhorns), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Adam Birnbaum (piano) and many more took their virtuosic turns in the spotlight at roughly 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. Argue, working idiosyncratically with 12-tone methods in his eeriest and most multifaceted piece to date, expanded yet again the textural and emotional vocabulary of the modern big band.

The political thrust of the piece was highly ambiguous for the first three-quarters of the show, and this was perhaps a flaw. Above the band as a backdrop were 15 small square-shaped video screens flickering with images drawn from conspiracist lore: the ’80s crack epidemic and Iran-Contra, the JFK and MLK assassinations, UFOs, chemtrails, the moon landing and so forth. It’s all catnip, of course, for the conspiracy theorist, who could well be fooled into thinking this is itself a conspiracist show. But Argue and Butler do not endorse the theories; they are pursuing, in Butler’s words, “an inquiry into belief itself.” There’s an air of impartiality as the show explores irrationalism bred of rational distrust toward government (spurred by anticommunist dirty tricks, CIA experiments, campaign finance bribery, surveillance and the like).

Then as the piece winds down, we hear a long voiceover in a sinister sci-fi monotone, quoting from Olmsted’s Real Enemies as well as Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1964 study The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Here at last is a withering critique of “the paranoid,” a person inflicted with a “dread disease,” an unhinged belief that “history is a conspiracy.”

On the surface these beliefs are amusing, but “Real Enemies” doesn’t fully address their toxicity. In part this is deliberate. Butler has spoken about his omission of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a founding tract of modern Jew-hatred: “I thought indulging in something that openly racist would derail the piece.” That’s probably true, though as a result the political context envisioned by “Real Enemies” seems incomplete.

Anti-Semitism has proved an integral part of the 9/11 Truth movement, for instance, and by now “truthers” attach themselves to every terrorist event as it occurs (most recently asserting, without evidence, that the Paris attacks were conducted by Israel, or that Israel is funding ISIS). “Real Enemies” does touch on government’s use of conspiracy theories for disinformation; this is nakedly true today in the case of the Russian and Iranian regimes, whose English-language broadcast outlets (RT and Press TV, respectively) are sometimes foolishly cited and legitimized by people on the left. These may be matters beyond the scope of a big-band concert, not to mention a review of one. But they’re deeply disturbing and thus vitally important.