It starts with a slight irritation. The music – muted brass, then a gaggle of other horns – pecks at a five-note riff that both attracts and unnerves. The insinuation has begun. Soon, counter motifs arise and the piano waxes eerie. Following their leader’s instructions, the 18-member Secret Society sounds masterful setting up such an ominous aura. Forget the steampunk stuff. It turns out that postmodern noir may be Darcy James Argue’s strongest suit.
Real Enemies is a multi-media piece that addresses the perniciousness of conspiracy theories and the way they seep into our social fabric. When New York composer Argue premiered it last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he conducted his large ensemble while surrounded by 15 screens beaming images of J. Edgar Hoover, bee hives, Ollie North, the WTC towers and other puzzling political flash points, sketching a time-line of dubious truths and questionable lies. Throughout this 12-piece program (whose compositions take cues from Schoenberg’s 12-tone methodology), you can hear the tick-tick-tick of a doomsday clock that Argue also referenced onstage. The schitzy whispers and manic crescendos are potent enough to conjure an active state of paranoia, ideal for an examination of all things sinister.
Argue’s arrangements glow with subtleties and resound with punch. The momentary clunkiness that bubbled up in his earliest pieces has been smoothed out by an ever-developing eloquence, especially in a narrative sense. The grace of tracks like “Who Do You Trust,” “Apocalypse Is a Process” and “Dark Alliance” unfurl with a newfound articulation. Solos are better integrated; the action moves from Point A to Point B with a deeper clarity. Secret Society is comprised of key NYC improvisers such as Jacob Garchik, Sebastian Noelle, Ryan Keberle, John Ellis, and many more, and it’s terrific to hear them in full blush. At this past summer’s Newport Jazz Festival, they used the large stage to bring clout and eloquence to their foreboding fanfares. They’re always impressive on the bandstand.
Taking his cue from Kathryn Olmsted’s book of the same name, Argue built Real Enemies around a history of deceit and its resulting culture of doubt. “We never want a serious crisis to go to waste” says the baneful voice of Rahm Emanuel at one point. In Argue’s hands the news snippet references everything from Halliburton’s profiteering in the Middle East to the post-Katrina land grab by greedy NOLA realtors. Birthers, the Illuminati, chemtrails, the crack crisis, all things Trump – does our ever-widening landscape of suspicion have a soundtrack? It does now.