Friday, August 18, 2006

Interviews with Young People #2: Darcy James Argue

The young composer Darcy James Argue conducts Secret Society, an ensemble of urban hippies who perform his original compositions at various underground locations. On August 26 and 27, Secret Society will perform in various outer-boroughs of New York City. I recently spoke with young person Darcy via my MIDI dictaphone.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
After listening to a few minutes of your music, I would categorize you as a "jazz composer," yet you have studied with at least one composer of serious music, and you are very skilled at music notation. As someone who thinks carefully about writing things down, where do you draw the line between improvisation and composition?

Darcy James Argue:
Some jazz musicians feel that improvisation is just composition in real-time. I don't actually buy this. Open-ended improv is really its own thing, and it creates a very different set of expectations and reactions in the listener than a pre-structured piece does.

As for my own process, I find improvisation can be a great way to generate or mess with raw materials -- to fill up the sketchbook with ideas, to assist with the pre-compositional work, and the like. But then I have to hunker down and figure out how to structure those ideas. It's like what the faculty are always telling the kids at jazz camp: "play drunk, write sober."

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
As you know, most jazz composers compose melodies and chord changes... but they seem to have no interest in counterpoint. What are your feelings about counterpoint?

Darcy James Argue:
I agree with Jon Stewart that shows like "Counterpoint," "Hardball," "I'm Going To Kick Your Ass," etc., are hurting America.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
I know you jazz composers love to inject heroin and smoke LSD, but let’s try to stay on topic here. You conduct your ensemble in performances... Now, I've seen many jazz conductors break into convulsive dancing fits and visceral finger-snapping while directing their big band ensembles. Will you be doing this in your performances? What is it about jazz music that awakens such primal bodily movements in conductors?

Darcy James Argue:
If I could dance like Cab Calloway, I probably would. Maria Schneider has developed this unique language of incredibly fluid and expressive gestures for conducting her band. I'm not a naturally gifted conductor by any means, so I'm generally happy if I can just cue the right people at the right time and not fuck up any of the metric modulations. I do, however, encourage the audience to get their freak on, especially when we play tunes in 13/4, the people's meter.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
After listening to the first minute or so of your composition "Desolation Sound," I was reminded of the movie-music composer Michael Nyman. Do you ever think about movies while composing your music?

Darcy James Argue:
I appreciate the comparison to Michael Nyman as I'm a big fan of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. I think about film a lot, both in terms of the narrative techniques (especially transitions and large-scale structure) and the cinematic techniques (framing, camera movement, lighting, editing, etc). For a while, I was a little obsessed with the conversations that would take place on screenwriting blogs, all these heated debates about the merits of the three-act structure versus the sequence model.
Professor Heebie McJeebie:
Which movie would you most like to compose a new score for?
Darcy James Argue:
I think it would be great fun to write a new score for The Piano in the style of Cecil Taylor.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
As is typical of Canadian composition students, you have also worked as an arranger of other composers' music. What have you learned from your "work" as an arranger?
Darcy James Argue:
Whenever my mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, is asked to arrange an existing tune, the disclaimer he gives is: "I cannot guarantee one recognizable note." If you've heard his versions of "My Funny Valentine" and "King Porter Stomp," you know he's not kidding. I've learned that this is not necessarily the optimal strategy for the young arranger to adopt if he ever wants to get hired again.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
I have done some real-time analysis while listening to excerpts of your compositions. I find that your use of repetition is somewhat more practical for jazz music than serious music. As you know, serious listeners don't need to hear the same thing more than once to understand it, but jazz listeners may need a few repetitions before they can appreciate the complexity of your musical ideas. Do you think about who your audience will be, when composing a new piece? If so, how do you pander to them?

Darcy James Argue:
You seem to be aligning yourself with the Scottish-Canadian composer David Byrne, who famously advised his composition students "Say something once, why say it again?" Brookmeyer, on the other hand, always encouraged me to keep talking until I'd exhausted what I had to say about whatever the piece was about. I'm not generally a fan of music that insists on discarding or radically transforming ideas as soon as they are introduced -- that stuff usually ends up sounding like the composer could have benefited from a little Ritalin.

As for audiences, I find there's nothing they love better than walking into a club and seeing nineteen people on stage, only one of whom has a guitar, but all of whom have music stands in front of them. When they find out that I'm the conductor and not the lead singer, that's the point where I know they'll be in the palm of my hand for the rest of the evening no matter what we play.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
If I were to point my finger at you and yell, "IMPROVISE!" what would you do?

Darcy James Argue:
That depends... If there was a TANDY Virtuoso-M1992 in the room, I'd probably reach for that first.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performs at the Flux Factory in Long Island City on August 26, and at Union Hall in Brooklyn on August 27. You can download and listen to mp3’s of his compositions from his website. But be warned, dear readers: Jazz compositions are often unpredictable, and one performance may sound completely different than another.

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