At Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performance at Miller Theatre on Saturday night, the three-time Grammy-nominated band continued to champion the New Music genre of jazz. However, Argue is not simply working on the New Music genre—his music also offers a personal political critique.
As part of the 29th season of Miller Theatre, the School of the Arts hosted Argue’s Secret Society, an 18-piece band, on Feb. 3. From the opening piece, “Phobos,” to the closing song, “Tensile Curves,” Argue’s compositions were eclectically unique.
In 2015, the composer was presented with a fellowship from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for music composition. His work was described by The New York Times as “wildly discursive, twitchily allusive, a work of furious ambition [and] … deeply in tune with our present moment.”
His success, however, was never something he had expected.
“I wanted the audience to feel OK with a small audience. If nobody came to this show, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a ‘secret society show,’” Argue said, explaining how the name of his band came about.
Through his band’s intimate performances, Argue appears to be able to weave his political commentary and critique into his music without straying too far away from the essence of jazz. Saturday night’s program was composed entirely of pieces that have not been released on his CDs, providing even the most frequent listeners of Secret Society with something new.
The opening piece, “Phobos," named after the Greek god of fear, set the mood from the outset. For the first five minutes, a backdrop soundtrack reminiscent of marbles clinking together and tennis balls bouncing filled the silent theater, the eerie mood demanding the attention of its listeners.
“All In,” the third song of the night, was haunting and eerie at points, mirroring the political paranoia borne out of the White House environment of 2017. Creeping into the body, ghoulish transitions ingeniously unnerved the audience and drew it into the uncanny.
“It can be maddening to deal with a political environment where it seems like the truth has no purchase anymore,” Argue said in an NPR interview.
Although hiding the political commentary in his eclectic New Music is an intriguing choice, there is an odd tension created by Argue’s decision to keep the performance set traditional and orchestral, even as the music popped with wild and novel intrusions.
The musicians, all dressed neatly in suits, hid behind their music stands while simultaneously introducing the audience to scintillating phonetics. The tension felt caged and restricting.
Some audience members may have noted, however, that, there was only one female musician in the completely white 18-person outfit, contrary to the progressive politics that Argue attempts to champion with his work.
Argue said he chose performers that he himself felt comfortable with, claiming that after working extensively with these performers, he rarely had to make playability changes to his pieces because he knew the abilities of each one so well already.
If only Argue dared to be different in performance as well as in sound.
Nevertheless, in a political climate that requires constant skepticism and discomfort, Argue successfully phonetically paints a post-truth scene through his eclectic New Music.
Fonda Shen contributed reporting.