Arts Desk

Bandleader Darcy James Argue on the Genesis of Brooklyn Babylon

Darcy James Argue describes his 18-piece Secret Society ensemble as a "steampunk big band," but that's not exactly literal. The composer and bandleader does operate on a similar, cross-genre and -era aesthetic as steampunk, but his jazz big band doesn't fully embrace the subculture's outlandish fashion, for one, and it also works with elements of indie rock, world music, and sometimes comic-book culture. The latter in particular, in the case of his second album Brooklyn Babylon. It is the musical end of a collaboration with Croatian comic artist Danijel Zezelj, who created an animation to go along with live performance. Ahead of Argue's performance of Brooklyn Babylon's music at the Atlas on Saturday, the bandleader talked to Washington City Paper about the nature of multimedia collaboration, the music with and without animation, and how improvising fits into the framework.

Washington City Paper: What was the genesis of the Brooklyn Babylon project?

Darcy James Argue: Well, basically, shortly after Infernal Machines came out, I was called up for a meet-and-greet with Joe Melillo, who's the executive director of BAM. It was sort of billed as a very casual meet-and-greet, but at the end he asked—and I'd had sort of an inkling that he might—"Well listen, if there's every any artistic project that you have in mind that might require BAM's financial resources to execute, let us know."

And so I actually said, "Well, funny you should mention that," and I whipped out one of Danijel's forthcoming graphic novels that a friend of mine at Vertigo had kindly slipped me an advance copy of. At that point I hadn't met Danijel, but I knew going into that meeting that I'd need something prepared to pitch him. So I thought about what it might entail, and it went through a lot of different possibilities and potential collaborations with artists outside of the jazz world. Something with dance? Something with film? And I ultimately decided, "Well, something with a comic book artist would be cool."

As I said, I had a friend who was working at Vertigo, which is a comic and graphic-novel imprint, and she recommended some people. I saw Danijel's website and instantly thought, "OK, this is the guy," and I bought everything I could get my hands on of his. Then I discovered that he was very experienced with multimedia collaborations with musicians–he'd done many collaborations with [saxophonist/composer] Jessica Lurie—and the visual style was a perfect mesh with my sensibilities. So then it was just a matter of me sitting down with him and saying, "We might be able to pitch something to BAM if you're interested." I think he was pretty skeptical when we first met for coffee; I don't think he was necessarily a big-band fan, but when he heard the record he was like, "OK, this makes sense."

WCP: How did the collaboration work?

DJA: It actually was a pretty extensive collaboration. The way these things normally work is that one does a full animation, and you're writing to finished film. But in our case, it was more of a give-and-take: Danijel came up with this story, and then we talked about it and refined it over time, and then he started to paint images.

So he would send me these still images, but there was no time dimension yet, and it was left up to me to determine how long these images would last, and how long each section would last, whether they’d be moving fast or slow and what the duration would be, depending on the story. I would do a mockup with the music and say, “OK, I want this frame to land at this point in the music, Bar 29, Beat 4, and this frame delayed here and this one here.” And Danijel would take the mockup and my suggestions as to how I was hearing it, and work it out.

For the most part I think we were on the same wavelength. Whenever Danijel would have something that would require a musical rewrite, I might be initially resistant but I could see that the story demanded that we take more time here or less time here. Also, at the end of the process I had to admit that all of the changes he requested made the music stronger. So, it was a genuine collaboration and that was something we were very much set on. We were really looking to create a balanced mode of storytelling.

WCP: When you bring in improvising musicians, are you talking about another level of collaboration?

DJA: Well, the way that the piece is structured, it begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue that weren’t tracked to the animation. They’re less constrained than the rest of the work in terms of duration and solos because they didn’t have to track. So we began and ended the work more organically.

And for each chapter of the music—there were eight chapters that were performed to animation, and in those cases we had to be very careful about things like tempo, and solos had to be preordained in a certain way to sync up and tell the story that we wanted to tell. But in between each chapter we have interludes, there are seven interludes in Brooklyn Babylon. And those are deliberately left more open. They’re meant to give the band, and the audience, a break from the highly structured music that the chapters involved. It serves as a kind of a palate-cleanser for the next chapter.

WCP: Even so, this sounds extremely difficult to conceive as standalone music, on a CD.

DJA: Well, there is going to be a graphic novel. We’d hoped to have that ready with the CD release. Unfortunately the production of the graphic novel has been somewhat delayed—it turns out making graphics, having them printed in Croatia, and shipped over to the United States is a time-consuming process! It’s all new illustration, none of the paintings from the show. All pen-and-ink illustrations, and I’m looking forward to this coming out so that there’s a visual element that people who aren’t able to see the full multimedia production can associate some imagery with it.

As for making it a standalone, it’s a question I struggled with when deciding whether or not to record this material. After the BAM show closed, I was so bound up in the whole process of creating music for this specific purpose that I hadn’t really stopped to consider what it might sound like on its own. And I needed to get a little bit of distance from it in order to even think about that question.

We had a live recording from our final night at BAM, and that needed to be mixed and given to presenters so they had an idea what the music sounded like. So going through that gave me an opportunity to listen to the music just by itself, and disconnect it from the images—and just give it to people who hadn’t seen the show and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?”

It seemed to me that the music did work on its own. Obviously I think it works best the way we tried to set it up with the packaging on the CD, where there’s a little hint of the story, and the images from the digipak and the digital booklet are chosen to stamp certain images in your mind and spark the imagination, so that when you listen to it, there is that kind of process of imagining your own visual narrative to go with the music, the way that people who have never seen the dance Petrushka might have their own idea what it looks like. Or The Rite of Spring or any of those ballets that get performed in concert versions frequently.

It was my hope when this thing went out that it would be an album that sounded satisfying as a piece of music, not just as a soundtrack. And the response suggests that it does fill that role. And I’m glad, because it’s something that I sweated for a long time before deciding, “Well, let’s put it out and see what happens!”

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