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Interviews

Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

By Published: December 9, 2008

It was becoming evident that my voice was coming out a lot clearer in my compositions than it was in my piano playing

Darcy James ArgueAhhhh, to be young and in New York and have an 18-piece band of superb musicians at your disposal.

OK. Now open your eyes and come to your senses. To operate a big band these days is a fiscal and organizational nightmare. But thankfully, there are people out there running fabulous organizations, like Sue Mingus who continues to present her husband's legacy bands, Carla Bley and the brilliant Maria Schneider, whose wondrous music is food for the senses and soul. On the other coast, there's John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton doing what they can. The Basie and Ellington organizations are around. And there are other cats—Jason Linder, John Hollenbeck, Mike Kaplan—and others (sorry not to mention them all), who have been bringing out larger groups when they can.

Add to the list a young man from Vancouver, Canada, who this year has been opening eyes and ears with his Secret Society, an 18-piece orchestra based out of the Big Apple. Influenced by some of the best composers and arrangers around, Darcy James Argue, 33, and his group are fast becoming not-so-secret. He's garnered critical praise from just about everyone who has heard the band. Like Schneider, Argue does not play his instrument (piano), but leads the band with all-original music that has influences not only from jazz, but rock, alternative and any music that he feels has something to draw from.

His isn't a band playing old charts or stuck in neo-bop formats. Argue is adamant about drawing on varied sources to bring the music that is inside him to the world. The praise is well-deserved.

Writing and arranging personal, thought-provoking music is hard enough. But toss into the mix the financial problems of having a big band in these times that are not only financially bleak, but resistant to what they might feel "big band music" is. And add to that the general malaise in the music industry, in terms of how many gigs are out there, how CD sales are declining, how recoding and distributing music has gone topsy turvy with the decline of major labels and the Brave New World of the Internet.

Argue is undeterred. He knows the difficulties, but forges ahead. His accomplishments thus far are noteworthy, if not remarkable.

The band is comprised of some of New York's finest musicians, some of whom also play in Schneider's orchestra, and all of them involved in other projects. Argue was astounded, and greatly satisfied, that when he formed the idea for the band and began asking musicians to participate, they readily came forth—even though he was unknown to almost all of them. The cast may not always be the same, but they have included folks like trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Tim Hagans, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and John Ellis, trombonist Ryan Keberle and drummer Jon Wikan.

The group headlined a night at the 2008 New Languages Festival, and has performed at venues including Le Poisson Rouge, the Jazz Gallery, the Living Theatre, Flux Factory, and the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. They did a Canadian tour this year that included a performance at the last International Association for Jazz Education conference in Toronto.

Argue has only been in New York for about five years, following his studies at the New England Conservatory, where the renowned Bob Brookmeyer was his main mentor. But he's has also studied along the way with Lee Hyla, Randall Woolf, Schneider and Hollenbeck.

His beginnings in Vancouver were quiet. He studied piano from a young age, but took it more seriously in high school, listening to jazz, transcribing solos from recordings and learning about jazz harmonies. But that wasn't all that passed through the ears of a kid in the 1980s.

"I was listening to the same stuff that anybody else my age would be listening to," says Argue, "like Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction (Geffen 1987). I liked Living Colour. Vivid (Epic, 1988) was probably my favorite record. But in order to learn enough piano to play in the school band it seemed like not such a bad idea to get some jazz records. I knew I should get some Miles Davis records—tapes at that time. The first one I picked up was the soundtrack to the movie Siesta (Warner Bros., 1987), which is not maybe the most shining moment in Miles' catalog. I picked up Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) shortly after that. I took down the Wynton Kelly solo on "Freddie Freeloader" in B, because the tape was running fast on that issue and the cassette always ran fast. Later on I learned it in the proper key (B flat).

"I started doing that kind of thing. Getting some Charlie Parker recordings. Clark Terry with Thelonious Monk, In Orbit (Riverside/OJC, 1958). That was an early one I really liked. And sort of backing up from there. For whatever reason, I don't really know why, it was easy for me to listen to those records. They made an immediate emotional impression. Especially when I first heard Wynton Kelly. I was, like: 'That's the way to play. That's what I want to sound like.' That was pretty vivid at the time."

Argue, outspoken, articulate and intelligent, was turned onto Charles Mingus by a high school teacher, an influences that remains strong. He went to McGill University in Montreal for under grad work in jazz piano. He stayed there for a while, playing in small groups.

"Things started to go pretty well for me in Montreal. I did the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2000 with my small group and I won the SOCAN award for composition there. So it was time to quit town. I had been in correspondence with Bob Brookmeyer over e-mail over various things. I had started teaching an arranging class at McGill at that time, a few years after I graduated. I was asking a few things about his music. He suggested I send some of my own writing to him. I did. He said I should go down and study with him at the New England Conservatory. At the time I hadn't actually thought of doing a master's degree, but I figured if Bob Brookmeyer wanted me to come study with him, then I should oblige him."

Oblige him he did. And from NEC, went a virtual unknown into New York City. Eventually, the formation of the band was something he was completed to follow, and it worked out beyond his expectations.

In December 2008, the band goes into the studio for the first time to cut its first official album, to be dubbed Infernal Machines, a term which comes from a delicious quote from John Phillip Sousa that bears repeating, in which he complains that modern technology—radio—is going to ruin music:

Darcy James Argue "These talking machines will ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left in America! The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution as was the tail of man when he came down from the ape."

No doubt the infernal machines of today are computers. We would all disagree with Sousa. It's Argue's disagreement with some traditions that make his perspective refreshing and attractive. His infernal music is going to be making waves for some time.

Much of the band's music is available at Argue's website, where he also maintains a hip blog about music, politics and other things. He has no objection to offering music for his fan base that is growing around the world, thanks to his liberal use of the Internet and its ability to spread music everywhere. Argue is savvy about such things and willing to keep his eyes and ears open to anything in this new atmosphere that will enhance music.

The music is alive, taking unexpected directions. It provides a wide sampling for the sense, at times almost film-like as it carries the listener along. Argue has a fertile imagination that has miles to go. It's a journey worth taking with him.

Live at Le Poisson Rouge is about 25 minutes of music recorded in July at the New York City venue. It's one of several live concert free downloads that are available on the Secret Society website. "Ferromagnetic" starts out eerily, builds to a driving sound, propelled by saxophones and trombones before trumpets offer a soaring melody, then into a funk phase, over which Tim Hagans solos. The music shifts along like he countryside as a passenger looks out the window of a train. It's not theme, solo segments and theme again. It's taken you from one place to another and showed you interesting landscape long the way.

"Desolation Sound" is aptly named and the feeling is projected right from the start. It could almost be a movie soundtrack—someone walking through a dark street at night, not knowing where they're headed or what's around the corner. Cries from horns and twists could have come from Mingus. (He is, affirms Argue, one of his early influences). The exotic flavor of the solo over percussion recalls Ellington. But it's more modern. Those are only flavors used in the recipe. There's never traditional swing, the steady rhythm from Argue's pen comes from other sources.

"Transit" has the brass stating a solemn line at the onset before a swinging groove develops and the sharp ideas of the composer come to the fore. The palate is full. Listen to the sounds under Nadje Noordhuis' flugelhorn solo. Remarkable. He needs 189 pieces. The colors come from the mind of someone developing a unique voice. The crescendo of sound that emerges is stirring, stimulating.

The band can cook too. Try "Flux in a Box," from the band's set at a club called La Sala Rossa in Montreal back in January, for kick-ass rhythm section swing and sweet horns.

While relatively new to the scene, Argue is no fly-by-night. He is also a founding member of the New York composers' federation Pulse, which has presented projects featuring musicians like John Abercrombie. He was selected for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Composer Mentorship Program, and his work "Body Double," for string quartet and tapan, was premiered by percussionist Svet Stoyanov and members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Music Off The Walls series at the Brooklyn Museum. Argue has also written arrangements for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's collaborations with singers Lizz Wright and Shelby Lynne, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Argue's awards and commissions include the Jazz Gallery's Large Ensemble Commissioning Series, the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize/Manny Albam Commission, the SOCAN/IAJE Emerging Jazz Composer Award, the SOCAN Award for Composition, the Down Beat Student Music Award, and grants from Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, and the Canada Council for the Arts. In addition to his own groups, Argue's music has been performed by the BMI New York Jazz Orchestra, the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the University of North Texas Jazz Repertory Ensemble, the NEC Jazz Composers' Orchestra, the McGill Jazz Orchestra, and others.

All About Jazz: Who were your influences in terms of writing and arranging?

Darcy James Argue: A lot of people. Among my early composition influences was (Charles) Mingus. The other guy that I listened to a lot early on would be Thad Jones. Especially in terms of the big band stuff. We had done some drastically simplified version of Thad's chart "Us" in junior high jazz band. After that, I went to check out some of those original Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recordings. I really, really loved the sound of that and internalized that pretty quickly.

Thad was really my model in terms of learning how to arrange for a big band and bringing in some of that rich, 1960s Herbie Hancock-style harmony into a big band context. Jim McNeely talks about how Thad took the music of the '60s and big-bandized it. He doesn't necessarily get a lot of credit for it. It's very hard swinging and whatnot, but the harmonic richness is incredible. The angularity in some of those lines, especially the saxophones, is wonderful.

From there, it was natural progression to studying Brookmeyer's music and learning about that. Like everyone else, when Maria Schneider's first record (Evanescence, Enja, 1994) came out, it completely floored me. I think everyone who heard it with the slightest interest in big band music was like, "Oh my god. What is that?" That opened up a lot of new avenues and possibilities. I think Maria did to jazz of the '90s what Thad did to jazz of the '60s.

Darcy James Argue

Then of course, Gil Evans. He was a huge influence as an arranger, especially his ability to take something and completely transform it and make it focus on mood and color and texture. The smallest details serve the narrative of those arrangements. That made a huge impression on me. A lot of composers tend to get fixated on the micro-details; exactly where the notes are in the spacing, what orchestration is being used. All that stuff is important in terms of developing a facility with arranging and harmony, but I think with the really great composers and arrangers, especially someone like Gil Evans, what stands out is the story of the piece and how all those great little details are there not just because they're great little details, but to bring out the story or the narrative of the piece.

AAJ: The Conservatory was a great experience for all of that, especially with Brookmeyer there.

DJA: Yeah. That was a fantastic experience to be able to go down to Boston, to study directly with Brookmeyer. He's taught so many great writers. Not every great composer or great player is a great teacher, but it's something Bob took very seriously. He took an incredible interest in the development of all of his students and developed a lot of strategies for helping people to develop their own voice and push people to try things that they hadn't tried before, to nudge them out of their comfort zone a little bit. When that was already happening, he also had the perspective to stay out of the way.

The first chart I wrote when I moved down and studied with Brookmeyer was this thing called "Lizard Brain," that we still play, a 20-minute burnout, a baritone sax feature. It was something drastically different than I'd ever attempted before. I think Bob could sense that enough to let me see where this music was going to lead me before offering too much in terms of actual critique. He saw that I was really looking for something, that I was searching for something. Basically, his comments were, "Great. Keep it coming," until the whole thing was complete. After that we'd look at what we had. He was able to help me shape it from that point. I think he knew if that he got too bogged down in the details, it might have the negative effect of slowing down the process of experimentation.

At that point, I was so excited to be down there studying with him and be around so many great musicians that I thought I had something to prove with the chart. So I was really pushing myself. For the first few lessons, I thought, "Is he ever going to say anything?" He just said, "That's great. Keep it up. Keep it up."

AAJ: When you left the Conservatory, did you hang around Boston for awhile?

DJA:I stayed in Boston for one year after I graduated, because my girlfriend was still at Tufts University (near Boston) , she had another year. But I was commuting to New York a lot because I was involved in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. Every Tuesday morning,. I'd get up super early and go down and line up for one of those Chinatown express buses to New York. I'd spend the day there with friends who were musicians and ask them a lot of questions about what it was like; wander around the city a bit. Then go in for the BMI meetings or the reading sessions at the (musician's) union hall.

At the time, Jim McNeely and Michael Abene were running the program. John Hollenbeck was occasionally playing drums on the reading sessions, which as really great. It gave me a chance to talk to John a little bit about some of the things he was doing with his music, not to mention having him play on our charts, including mine, which was wonderful.

That gave me a sense of...I guess there was security in numbers. I was trying to work hard at that point. It was like, is it completely insane to decide to move to New York and start a big band? And the answer is: yes. It is completely insane to move to New York and start a big band. But since there were a lot of people doing it in the BMI workshop, it did seem a lot more reasonable.

AAJ: At that point, were you thinking: I'm not going to be a pianist leading a quartet? You were thinking big band?

DJA: All through my studies at the New England Conservatory, I tried to keep both sides up. I would play a lot of piano at my lessons with Brookmeyer. He was extremely helpful. I've never been much of a bebop specialist. He's someone who helped refine line playing and digging in and trying to get a sense of that Midwestern swing feel that he and Clark Terry have that's so special. At the end of that process, when I had to make a decision about moving to New York and starting a big band and whatnot, it became apparent there weren't enough hours a in the day to pursue dual careers to start up a new big band that was going to play my new music exclusively, run that and organize that, and also try to make a name for myself in New York as a pianist.

It was a really hard decision, but it was becoming evident that my voice was coming out a lot clearer in my compositions than it was in my piano playing.

I felt that the music I was writing was more personal and meaningful to me than my ability to make a statement on a standard or something like that. It came down to that. I've got to pick something, for my own insane reasons I gravitated toward the big band route rather than the piano route.

AAJ: It is a daunting task. How did the idea for the Secret Society come about? Did you have a big band before that?

DJA: The Secret Society is the first big band that I started on my own. I had done in Boston big band concerts with other composers from NEC and a lot of NEC players that were put together to play over the summer; kind of an ad hoc group. But (the Secret Society) this is my first attempt at starting a big band that plays regularly and has more or less sustainable personnel.

It took me a while to work up the nerve to do that. I was new in New York. I moved there in the fall of 2003 and continued doing the BMI Workshop. The BMI sessions are designed to give you a little taste of what it's like to have your music played by a great group of players. But the reading sessions go by quickly. You usually have seven to 10 minutes of the band looking at what you wrote, then they move on. If you want to explore your music in more depth and have a chance to rehearse it, then you've got to set that up on your own.

I started putting together some reading sessions on my music a few months after I moved to New York. I didn't know a lot of players at that point. I got a list of names off a friend who graciously shared his Rolodex with me. I made a lot of cold calls that went something like: "You don't know me. I'm new in town. But I'm a writer. You want to come down to the union and play through some of my music for free? It's really hard."

Darcy James Argue / The Secret Society

I was amazed at the reaction . Everyone in New York wants to play. Universally, everyone said, "I'd love to do that. Where do I sign up?" Or, "I'm sorry. I can't make that day, but keep me in mind. I love to play really hard music." That seemed like a positive indication that I moved to the right place, because it doesn't happen in other cities.

I started having these reading sessions. It was really [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen who ended up kicking my ass and saying, "If you're going to keep having these reading sessions, you should get us a gig somewhere." I said, "OK. I'll try and get us a gig somewhere." I managed to get something. We had a great reception from that and it took off from there.

AAJ: That's cool that everybody was so willing. They probably also told you that you were crazy.

DJA: [chuckles]. It still is completely insane. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing with my life. This big band I'm running and recording is a totally unreasonable way to make music. It's like I've gone out of my way to create the absolute most difficult scenario in terms of hours involved in preparation, to actual minutes of music produced. But for whatever reason, the payoff has been worth it for me so far.

AAJ: The music I've heard sounds really good. And I know the critical acclaim is there, which has to feel good.

DJA: It's been incredibly gratifying. Critics and listeners have responded so well to this music. It's obviously really important, especially in this kind of endeavor where it is so labor intensive to get even five minutes of music out there. Sometimes it's difficult to keep motivated through the grind of preparing that. That kind of response, especially from the audiences, has been very encouraging. It's been very motivating, as well, for me writing stuff and keeping the band going.

AAJ: How do you sustain yourself, financially?

DJA: I'm a music copyist by day. I do a lot of work for various clients. Sometimes I do Broadway or film scores. Sometimes it's composers who still do work with pencil and paper. Or they have the score in music notation software and they want me to extract parts or whatever. I try to hustle up as much of that as I can to feed my big band habit.

AAJ: You guys don't travel that much?

DJA: We did have a mini-tour back in January. It was a Canadian splinter cell version of the band. I brought up as many players from New York as I could afford and we hooked up with some of the musicians I had collaborated with in my days on the Montreal scene, as well as Toronto players. That was great to be able to bring that music back to Montreal, which is a city that I dearly love. We played a show in Montreal, then we went to Toronto and did the last IAJE convention. And we did a gig at a club called Tranzac in Toronto as well. That was great. It was a wonderful experience to take the music outside of New York for a little while and collaborate with a different group of musicians.

We're trying to do something similar this summer. With the Canadian jazz festival season coming up, we'll try to set up a little tour of some festivals. Again, it will probably be a combination of musicians who play in the New York band and then some Canadian players as well.

AAJ: The joys of carrying a big band must outweigh the frustrations.

DJA: I guess on balance. Or it's something I'm powerless to stop doing.

AAJ: You've used the word "steampunk" to describe your music. What does that mean for you?

Darcy James Argue

DJA: For people who aren't familiar, steampunk is a literary movement, but it's also become involved in lifestyle and culture and invention. It involves an alternate vision of the future. What if the technology of the late 19th century, the external combustion engine and whatnot, was still the basis for contemporary technology.

A lot of it is inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and taking that view of the future and extrapolating it. It's using an anachronism, like using the past, or an imagined past or imagined future, as a way to comment on the present.

What also struck me is that it had so much contemporary resonance. To take these kind of pulp, late 19th century tropes and plug them into postmodern storytelling techniques, and to be able to do that and make some wry commentary on the state of the modern world and our relationship to technology. For whatever reason, that resonated with me and what I was trying to do—to take what is, in a lot of ways, an antiquated music technology and use it to make contemporary sounds.

The big band is born of the need to have a band that could fill a large ballroom before the days of amplification. If you needed the music to be loud and powerful, you needed 17, 18 players wailing away on it. Technology has rendered that necessity obsolete. Popular music has moved on to other things. Back in the day, the big bands were the sound of the day. If you had a singer and you had a radio hit, they had to be backed up by a big band. It was the sound of the day.

I thought, what would happen if that instrumentation had persisted through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s? What of that was still a necessity for popular music and every song you heard on the radio had a big band behind it still? What might that music sound like?

Jazz, at that time, had that interesting relationship to popular music. Not everything you heard ion the radio was jazz, but it was jazz all kind of jazzy. There was that shared instrumentation and that shared sense of swing behind everything and a shared harmonic vocabulary. What if you had this contemporary big band that had a shared sonic vocabulary with bands like Tortoise or TV On The Radio? What might that sound like?

AAJ: So, in your writing and arranging there are all kinds of influences beyond Ellington or Mingus. You use today's sounds.

DJA: Yeah. I live in the world like everyone else and I'm affected by everything around me. It probably takes some effort to exclude any kind of popular music from your musical world and from thinking about it. I listen to jazz and I listen to new classical music and those things are really important to me. I think it's also healthy to listen to things other people your age are also listening to.

I don't love every little thing that I hear, but there's so much creativity and so much conceptual greatness, especially, going on in indie rock right now—a lot of the Brooklyn bands and the Austin bands. Explosions in the Sky, for instance. You do your music a disservice if you cut yourself off from those kinds of avenues of influence, even if it's a negative influence—if what you want to do is to somehow stand apart from what's going on now. At least being aware of it gives you some leg to stand on. Knee-jerk dismissal of anything that falls outside the narrow parameters of jazz or of Art music is incredibly unhealthy for the music, not just in terms of the listenership, but in terms of art, in terms of the kind of dialog between popular music and jazz that used to be taken for granted.

The amazing and frustrating thing is the idea that jazz is something that is unaffected by popular music. That's a new idea. That's not something that Charlie Parker would have recognized, that Duke Ellington would have recognized, or Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or any of those people. That's something that's been imposed on the music relatively recently, this idea of jazz purism that makes no concession to popular culture.

AAJ: A lot of musicians say your music is difficult music. You're not writing difficult things as an end in itself.

DJA: Given the logistics of it, I try to make things as easy as I possibly can. The fact is, I'm trying to do some things that are a little bit off the beaten path rhythmically and harmonically and conceptually. It takes a little bit of adjustment. For players who are used to seeing some of these rhythms maybe in their small group stuff, that's one thing. But to have to play them together in a big band with 17 other musicians, that becomes a bit of a challenge.


The difficulty, I feel like it arrives organically, out of the challenges of trying to ... this is a very complicated topic.

I'm not trying to push boundaries for their own sake. I don't believe in this Darwinian idea of progress in jazz, like where Wayne Shorter is better than Charlie Parker and Steve Coleman is better than Wayne Shorter, by virtue of being more complex in certain ways. That's bullshit. I am trying to express something that's individual and to write music that is specific to my own experience and my own values. Naturally out of that desire to create something unique and personal, your music is going to have unique and personal , technical challenges that arise organically, just from your trying to express your voice. I think that's where the difficulty comes from. Trying to be true to my voice. I'm not trying to write music that is a bitch to play just for the sake of kicking the asses of the people who play the music. It's not about that. The difficulty is a means to an end, it's not an end in itself.

AAJ: Composition versus improvisation in your written music, what's the balance there? I know you give the musicians room to express themselves.

DJA: The most important thing about my music, the thing that I can do by having such a large group and having these compositions that are, more or less, through composed—there's not a lot of repeating sections or looping forms—is it allows me to establish a large-scale musical narrative that has a rising action, a falling action, and has the same sense of internal drama of a great movie or a great play might have. The most important thing for the soloist is to understand their role in the drama. They're not at odds with where the music has to go. It's a very dangerous thing.

It's something Brookmeyer talks about all the time—handing control of your music over to a soloist in this kind of setting. As a composer you have to take responsibility for the whole thing, so you develop a lot of ways, subtle and not so subtle within the music, of trying to encourage soloists to go in a certain direction with the music by the way you're writing around them. The way the band is interacting with them. In some ways that can be constraining for players who are used to having a more open-ended approach. But in other ways, I think they enjoy the challenge of having a role to play, knowing what that role is and trying to work out a way to be individual and expressive and creative and unpredictable within the confines of this story that unfolds a certain way.

Darcy James ArgueAAJ: They carry it out extremely well. I know they're not making a ton of dough, so it's got to be satisfying to you that they can step in and do that.

DJA: It's incredibly gratifying to have so many top-notch players to come in and sweat and toil for ridiculously, embarrassingly low compensation in order to make this music come to life.

AAJ: Live at the Poisson Rouge, is something you recorded at the gig. But the recording that you're working on will be a studio thing called Infernal Machines. How's that going?

DJA: We're going into Bennett Studios in Englewood (New Jersey) in December to record this record right after a weekend at the Jazz Gallery, (New York City, December 12 and 13, 2008). We're heading to the studio immediately after to try to get some of this music on hard drive. I'm really excited about that. It's a big step for us. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to give the music the kind of richness and attention to detail that you can only really get in a studio recording.

There's nothing quite like the power of a big band live. It can be overwhelming to see Maria's [Schneider] big band or the Vanguard big band. The sound that they're able to conjure is exceptional. But as a composer, you want everybody to hear everything, the tiniest details. That's only possible with the studio recording. To go in where everyone is close-miked and pay attention in the mixing to make sure everything is balanced all the way through, and that all of the little things and little twists or turns or details, ornaments you put in the music, get their proper due. I'm really excited about that prospect.

AAJ: Also, you're doing things for the album like ArtistShare, but not exactly, where you're asking people to donate and so on. How is that going?

DJA: Everyone is currently trying to figure out what a career in music is going to look like in this post-record company era. ArtistShare is one way of going about it. That's a great model because it allows the artist to have control of their product. And we're doing something similar with New Amsterdam Records—in that they have a very generous artist agreement, which is publicly available. It's a Google document that anyone can see. They allow their artists to own the masters, which is incredibly important, and to have the majority of the proceeds from album sales until the recording costs are recouped, which is great. The only kink in that chain is the ability to come up with the money to actually make the record in the first place. That's an area where artists are often on their own.

The great thing about the Internet era of the music business is that through this blog, which I've had almost as long as I've had the band, I've established a relationship with the listeners to this group. There are people who are fans of Secret Society who've never heard the band live. They've only heard the recordings that I've posted of our live shows, and downloaded those. The music has had a much wider penetration than it ever would have back in the days when, say, Guillermo Klein's band was playing regularly at Small's (nightclub, NYC). The only people who heard that group before they had an album out were the people who came down to see it in New York.

Now there's a chance for a much broader group of people to hear our music, even before we have our first studio record. Having that base of support means there are also people who—if they really believe in the music—I can ask to contribute to our fundraiser to get some money together to actually make this record. I'm being blown away by the generosity of the fans of this group. It's been incredibly humbling to know people believe in this group enough, and believe in this recording enough, to go and donate some of their hard-earned money to make sure we can make it a success.

It's both incredibly gratifying and makes me feel and even stronger responsibility to make sure that this album is the best we can possibly make it.

AAJ: Some musicians are afraid of offering free downloads, but you've been doing that to your advantage.

DJA: In the Internet era, the question isn't: Are people going to pay for my music. The question is: Everything is out there pretty much for free. How do I get people to listen to the free music that I'm giving away, as opposed to the free music that everybody else is giving away. The idea that you can bottle everything up and prevent people from accessing it unless they pay for it—that idea will not fly anymore.

What I've tried to do is that pretty much everything that we've played, I've recorded and put up a live recording on our website for free for people to download. The idea is that it really doesn't cost me anything to do that. I have a little digital machine that I use to record it, transfer it to the computer and put it up on the Internet. The idea of this is an enticement for people to listen to the group and maybe follow it and come out to some gigs. Hopefully if they like this, they will enjoy the studio recording and might be willing to pay for that when it becomes available.

Anyone who doesn't have their material on the Internet, at least for streaming purposes these days, is going to be left in the dust. I'm excited about these possibilities. It gives a chance for people all over the world, who will never be able to come out to hear the band live, to hear it. Years before we were in the position to make a studio recording there were people in Japan and Australia listening to this band. I can't think of anything better from a composer's point of view than to have that kind of distribution for your music.

The unfamiliar is always going to be scary to some people. Just because it's scary doesn't mean you shouldn't face up to the reality of it. You're not going to be able to change the technology, regardless of your attitude toward it. So the question is: Here's the reality; how do I navigate the unchartered waters.

Darcy James ArgueAAJ: On Infernal Machines, will there be new music people haven't heard?

DJA: At the Jazz Gallery in December, I'm very fortunate to be part of the Jazz Gallery's Large Ensemble Commissioning Series, along side some of my favorite composers like Sherisse Rogers, Pedro Giraudo and David Binney and John Ellis. I'll be composing some new music for that concert. Some of that music is definitely going to make its way onto the record, along with a lot of our existing compositions.

It was very difficult to try and narrow it down to exactly what we were going to do on the record. There's a lot more material than can possibly fit on the CD or that we have time to record. I think I've finally got the tune selection narrowed down. But there will definitely be some new music alongside some of the stuff we've been doing at our gigs.

AAJ: When will the CD be done?

DJA: One of the great things about a label like New Amsterdam is that because they are a young, upstart label, they are flexible in terms of the turnaround time. A lot of people record, then it's over a year before it sees the light of day. This is all going to be done very quickly,.

We'll be recording in December. We'll be mixing and mastering in January and February. The actual release date is going to be early May. There is actually going to be a New Amsterdam marathon, a three-day festival at Galapagos (Art Space in New York City) and our CD release party is going to be a part of that, which I'm excited about. It's a privilege to be on a label like New Amsterdam with so many of my favorite New York players who also have releases on that label, including Sam Sadigursky, who plays in our band. It's been a good experience.

AAJ: I know your elbows deep in this project, but what about future goals?

DJA: It seems almost impossible to imagine, but I would love for this band to be self-sustaining. I would love for me to be able to work on Secret Society music all the time and be able to take the band out on the road and focus my attention 100 percent on composing for the group. This is the biggest challenge for any musician in the 21st century is time management, especially when it comes to work that's going to pay the bills versus work you are artistically and personally committed to and is meaningful. At some point, perhaps in the distant future, I would love to be able to focus my attention on this band full time.

Photo Credits

Black and White Photo: Courtesy of Darcy James Argue

Ensemble Photo: Dani Gurgel

All Other Photos: Lindsay Beyerstein

Featured Story: Dani Gurgel


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