The Paranoid Style in American Jazz Music
His “Real Enemies” gets its Boston premiere when Argue and his 18-piece band, the Secret Society, play at the Museum of Fine Arts on October 7, following a CD release on September 30. The album grew out of his relationship with the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Argue’s 2011 multimedia piece “Brooklyn Babylon”, created with graphic novelist and illustrator Danijel Zezelj, was a hit at BAM, and they wanted another one. Argue describes “Brooklyn Babylon” as “a kind of fable, with a fairy-tale structure” that explored the imaginary worlds of the New York borough. The resulting album, like the Secret Society’s debut, 2009’s “Infernal Machines,” was nominated for a Grammy.
For the new play, Argue wanted a non-fiction subject. His girlfriend, journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, recommended the Olmsted.
Working with writer Isaac Butler, Argue developed a 13-chapter screenplay for “Real Enemies”, drawing inspiration from the writings of Olmsted and mid-20th-century American historian Richard Hofstadter, whose essay ” The Paranoid Style in American Politics” has become a touchstone in this political season of division and terror. Throughout the 78-minute piece, excerpts from spoken word recordings drop to the music – including tracks from JFK, George HW Bush, Dick Cheney and Jimmy Carter.
Musically, Argue based each section on a different “row of tones”, using the system developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s 12-tone method became the model for academic modernism, and film composers were particularly inspired by it to create black moods. You can hear that influence in the tense, unmoored to a tonal center harmonies throughout “Real Enemies,” the stabbing single-note piano figures and stuttering muted brass. Argue points out that, for better or worse, the 12-tone row became “the sound of paranoia”, especially when deployed by ’70s Hollywood film composers like Michael Small (“The Parallax View”) and David Shire (“All the President’s Men”). Argue calls this period “the golden age of paranoid cinema”.
These modern sounds are reinforced by the pulsating rhythms of Argue. “Un Son Para Mi Pueblo” by Nicaraguan composer Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, which became a hymn of social justice and pan-Latin solidarity during the Sandanista era, serves as the setting for “Dark Alliance”, a musical representation of the conspiracy of the CIA during the revolution upheavals in Nicaragua. For the “Casus Belli” section, Argue drew inspiration from a vintage recording made by Cuban bandleader Machito to promote an upstate New York resort. Argue imagined “CIA agents sitting around the pool…planning how to kill Castro”.
Elsewhere, rock and funk rhythms dominate, and passages of Argue’s signature layered cyclical rhythms underscore the piece’s “paranoid style”. Bravura’s solo sections – featuring, among others, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, flugelhorn player Jonathan Powell, alto sax Dave Pietro and guitarist Sebastian Noelle – against Argue’s detailed and shimmering backdrop, offer the familiar pleasures of big band jazz.
When the piece premiered at BAM in 2015, it included a 15-screen video design by filmmaker Peter Nigrini, intended to reference all the conspiracies – both real and theoretical – from the Iran-Contra scandal to religious cults and to the “false” moon landing. The “Real Enemies” presentation at the MFA, like the sections the band played at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, will be purely musical, complete only with these spoken drop-ins.
Argue says he’s tried to present his musical story of political paranoia more or less objectively, though the conspiracies get wackier and wackier as “Real Enemies” unfolds – “concrete evidence all the way to the city mad at the end”. But he is also well aware that conspiratorial thinking “is a very powerful tool that can be used to undermine political power” and to disempower “those who are already powerless”.
Of all the various spoken-word audio clips (along with a lengthy final voice-over narration by actor James Urbaniak), there is one that stands out as surprisingly self-referential: John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech on the “secret societies” that undermine freedom around the world. At the time, JFK was talking about communism. But is this speech, in fact, the origin of the name of the secret society? Argue hesitates: “I am pleading the Fifth on this.”
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $30. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.
Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.