Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
In the new Brooklyn Babylon, graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj harmonizes with composer Darcy James Argue to make art in the round, as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Composer Darcy James Argue and graphic novelist and animator Danijel Zezelj will be premiering their epic Brooklyn Babylon at this year’s Next Wave festival at BAM. The collaborative work fuses live performance with original music from Argue’s 18-piece band Secret Society, stylized animation created by Zezelj, and live painting, all in the service of a highly compelling and socially relevant narrative. I attended the October 22nd preview performance at SUNY Purchase. A few days later, in the last rays of October’s glory, I rode my bike out to Danijel’s studio in Gowanus to talk to the creators of this multifaceted and original work.
Jeremy Mage Brooklyn Babylon seems set in a mythical Brooklyn, with some visual cues suggesting we are in the 1920s or ’30s, and other references to more modern aesthetics, such as hip-hop. Can you talk about the artistic purpose of these anachronisms?
Danijel Zezelj The whole idea was that the story is set in a place that’s specific—that’s Brooklyn—and that Brooklyn has to come through, but it’s not set in any specific time, it’s rather past and present and maybe near future. And that’s why those elements are mixed together. Also aesthetically for me those are things that I’m very attracted to: the ’20s and ’30s, the aesthetic of silent movies, Russian avant-garde movies and German Expressionism, all of that, [plus] black and white photography from that time. Then there is a lot of play with shadow and light, the Baroque aesthetic. I was always fascinated by that, so it worked perfectly well as a set up for the story. And anyway, today it seems things keep coming back, certain aesthetics, fashions and looks, and it seems these circles of how things come from one to another keep getting smaller and smaller and faster and faster. Even on the street today you have people dressed like they were dressed in the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s not even that strange anymore. So there’s that element too, it reflects the reality.
JM At [the performance at SUNY] Purchase, in your conversation with Creative Producer Beth Morrison, you talked about this tradition of city as protagonist in a film …
DZ Yes, someone mentioned Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt. Yeah, that’s a very interesting movie, but that actually came after and was inspired by the first movie that’s really a movie where the city plays the main character, that’s by Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera (1929). You don’t have a story or a traditional narration or anything like that, he just captures certain moments in the city, it’s all documentary, from very weird angles, and he was like hanging from the wire from the top of a building. It’s quite amazing. A lot of people know this movie because it’s a favorite movie to write a score for. It’s quite open and abstract.
JM Speaking of optimum things to write a score to—Darcy, you said you knew early on that you wanted certain themes or ideas for certain visual beats. Some film composers tend to hit cues more on the nose, while others spin out a theme that doesn’t interface as exactly with most of the on screen edits. Did you study some of the different types of film/music relationships?
Darcy James Argue Yeah, it’s an interesting question because it’s not really like traditional film scoring. In a film score you have dialogue and sound. It’s a lot easier to have the score function on a separate level. Like, I just saw Copolla’s The Conversation a couple nights ago. And the score is all piano. And it was really interesting watching the editing of that, and where the cuts happen in relation to the musical form and that kind of thing, and usually they’re happening in odd places. But for this project, it’s more like an animated film, where the music is much more tightly bound to the visuals. And there’s a term that film composers use derisively called Mickey Mousing, when things are too on the nose visually and sonically. But in a context where you don’t have any other audio, there are points where you have to represent like a doorbell in some way with the musical score because there’s no recorded sound of the doorbell. So there’s certain points where I knew I would have to be more clear storytelling wise. The music really plays an integral role in shaping the story and giving the audience the information that they need to construct the narrative in their minds. So we both spent a lot of time thinking about how the music would hook up with the visuals, and where there might be either musical foreshadowing or visual foreshadowing, or when there might be a disconnect between music and visuals, when they’d be representing different things and when they’d come together. There were demands being asked of the music which would not be asked of the music in a traditional film with sound and dialogue. I tried to always be in the service of telling the story.
JM The protagonist in the film seems doomed to sell out his community, or to be co-opted as the token representative of a Brooklyn that will be destroyed in the name of progress. His heroism lies in finding an unexpected alternative. How have you faced the question of selling out or commercialism in your own artistic process? (laughter) I assume it resonates with you because it’s there …
DZ Well, yeah, of course, the song says, “Everybody’s got to eat sometime.” It’s very much a personal decision where you’re gonna draw the line and how far you’re gonna go with a project … so it’s about making choices. And it’s true that some work pays and it’s often the work that’s not the most creatively interesting, while the work that really is often doesn’t … The idea is something that can happen and happens to anyone to a certain extent, not just an artist. Any kind of job serves a certain purpose. So it was all about how one can deal with it, what can you do, can you fix it or not, so it’s somewhere there I guess. I was hoping that Lev, the protagonist, doesn’t come across necessarily just as an artist, but more as someone who built something with his hands, like a worker rather than artistic type, and in that sense the question is closer to anyone, not just something that an artist faces.
JM And he also mobilizes the community—the silk shop, the autobody shop.
DZ Yeah, connecting the people who are in a similar position, trying to make a living just by building something.
JM And who are getting plowed under by “progress.”
DZ Yeah which pretty much is what happens, you have a small store and then you have a mall coming and then the little guy can’t survive anymore, it happens all the time, it’s a universal thing these days. It’s really worldwide, it’s no longer worse here than anywhere else: It’s really everywhere.
DJA Yeah as we worked on this project pretty much non-stop for the last 18 months, I found myself really relating to [the protagonist] Lev as an artisan who kind of gets lost inside a really big project and is sort of wrapped up in the scale of what he’s working on and loses touch with the world around him. And that’s certainly something that was on my mind, as I was locked in my music studio ‘till four in the morning, trying to finish pieces and get parts printed and organize rehearsals for the musicians and that kind of thing. It’s very difficult to find a balance between the demands of producing work; and keeping the wolf from the door; and being engaged in your local community. I honesty have not really been as engaged as I wanted to be because of the enormous demands of this project!
JM But of course, having a show at BAM is a nice way to interface with the community—delayed gratification.
DJA It’s really exciting to see that it’s going to reach so many people.
JM I bought the narrative hook, line and sinker, I had total suspension of disbelief. I didn’t see any of it coming. I was like a kid, like, “Oh no!” (laughter) “This honest artisan is gonna work for the swine mayor, but wait, maybe there’s another way …”
I’m curious where you draw some of the influences for the odd meter and polyrhythmic approach; are there any particular touchstones for you in your approach to rhythm?
DJA I’m really interested in finding unusual grooves that still groove, I want people to feel it in the body. I’m not interested in doing kind of a really austere prog rock [(Progressive rock)] kind of a thing, being in 17/16, just because you can.
DJA But I do like it when I can pull off something that’s a little bit off kilter but still makes people feel it in their body. But the world of this piece; for me, Brooklyn has always had a bit of the spirit of Eastern Europe bound up in [it] because of the history of immigration to Brooklyn. So when I started collaborating with Daniel and seeing the designs for Lev, it’s like, ok, here’s Lev, he’s clearly from somewhere unspecified but somewhere in Eastern Europe. So I decided that he would be from somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, and that there would be strains of Balkan music making their way throughout the piece. So one of the interludes that’s played, the solo guitar peace, is actually a folk song from Croatia.
JM That was beautiful!
DJA But you know there’s a whole Balkan tradition of brass music, and given the makeup of Secret Society, it’s a natural thing to want to reference. And also, we wanted to begin the show and have interludes that could plausibly be street music. That’s such an integral part of the world and of the neighborhood. Having musician’s play in just an organic, acoustic way for people is something that could happen at any time. So each of the interludes where there was live painting, it was a groove from some kind of street music. So we had the Balkan brass band vibe in the prologue, there was one that was melodica and bass, sort of French or Italian cafe style, we had solo guitar, stuff that was more reflective, then again brass band kinds of things, like chorales, and the section with just the trombones that’s New Orleans influenced. All of the interludes were meant to represent some type of street music.
JM I loved when all the musicians switched to wood blocks and percussion …
DJA Yeah, [the part of the work called] Chapter 6, which is where we really see Lev involved as a craftsman, the whole band got involved in hitting stuff.
JM So, after a year and a half of solid work on this, do you guys still get along? (laughter)
DJA Yeah. Well of course there were some tense moments over the course of such a big project. But yeah, it’s very easy to work with Danijel.
DZ Yeah, for both of us. I mean I was really worried about that time in the theater, everybody was together for 12 hours a day for the whole week. Yeah, there was just this feel of building something together.
DJA For someone who is clearly a control freak, since I write all of the music for this 18-piece band … I’m used to working on my own in my music studio … So that’s my basic orientation. But despite that, I like the idea of collaboration. But, I’ve never had the opportunity to collaborate on such a large scale and for so long. And I’m very fortunate that it worked out with Danijel! It could have been horrible! And also the other members of the team who busted their ass to make this happen, and were just as emotionally invested as we were … that was really satisfying.
DZ That was great. For me [it’s] the same, I don’t work with people, I work on my own, mainly on graphic novels, and I like it that way. I like having complete control over what I do and if I mess up I messed up. So that was very new for me … being involved with a lot of people; you have to listen a lot more. Which for me was not always a natural thing, that’s where I was learning a lot.
JM How did the large scale of this project affect the emotional immediacy of art-making?
DJA Well for me there was so much more pressure … I have these 18 musicians. And the demands on them are extreme. Many of them turned down much more lucrative things, a trumpet player turned down a chance to tour with Springsteen to do this, there’s lots of players that turned down much more lucrative things. We spent 30 hours of music rehearsal before we even took it out to SUNY purchase. And it really felt like it wasn’t enough! For a moment I thought, Oh my God, we’re gonna let everybody down, the music is gonna sound terrible. What have I done? I’ve made it much too difficult, I’ve written this crazy hard music that no one is ever going to be able to play … And it’s gonna ruin all the work that Danijel has done. (laughter)
But, it’s amazing how much better things get in the two or three days before the show opens. Things go from, This is gonna be an unmitigated catastrophe, there’s no way this will work, to actually coming off, I felt very strong about the [SUNY] Purchase performance musically. And when that happens it’s really exciting.
DZ When we started this we didn’t have a clear idea of how we were gonna put it together. We had never done this before. It wasn’t like, We’ve done this on a small scale, now we’re just gonna make it big. We never did anything similar. Almost like we were creating a new language for telling the story, we’re gonna use animation, we’re gonna use live music and live painting, and we’ll try to integrate all these elements into something that actually works together as one thing, and functions within a theater space. But all of that, we didn’t know it was gonna work until … Saturday [the day of the preview performance]! Truly … Or maybe after a few days in the theater, one could tell, It could work. It’s possible. But when we were in the theater was the first time I saw the real size of this painting. I was not even sure if it was physically possible to paint in that amount of time! (laughter) So there were all these things that were completely open unknown territories, and that was exciting but also frightening at times. There were times when I thought it was going to be a monumental disaster.
JM The act of destroying the painting you create in the performance struck me as a comment on impermanence as well as on the commodification of art … As you neared the end of the piece, I thought, I guess someone in this audience would pay a lot for that giant painting. And then moments later, the painting was no more. Does painting over the painting each night have emotional effects for you personally? Is it painful?
DZ Sincerely, since I know I’m gonna paint over it, no, it’s not that my heart breaks when I do that. But I do hope that people in the audience get a little bit upset about it!
DZ That really is the point, that something has just been there and disappeared in front of their eyes. And I actually did this on a smaller scale, and that’s when I first heard, a few people told me they got really upset, when the thing got painted black. And that’s where I realized it has a certain power, this act of covering something that was first created in front of the audiences eyes, and afterward, destroyed. There’s a certain effect that it has that could be used. And within this story it works perfectly well, because the story is about things that are built and things that are destroyed, and the way it effects neighborhoods, lives, people …
DJA Well, and it’s also funny that you mentioned the idea of auctioning off the painting, because back when we were trying to figure out how on earth we were going to finance this, that was one of [Creative Producer] Beth’s ideas, it was like, Well and we’re gonna have this beautiful painting, at the end of the night, that we could auction off, and we had to break it to her that … (laughter) No.
JM So she was thinking like I was thinking … There’s gonna be this great painting …
DZ Yeah and there was a little bit of that too, we live in this absurd time where paintings are getting sold for ten, twenty million dollars, and the same city, a few blocks away, people can’t buy bread. And I think it really is absurd. I don’t think that any painting in the world is worth that. And I say that as an artist, and I love art, and have the deepest appreciation for it, but I think we’re just operating on a scale that’s been completely distorted.
END OF SPOILER ALERT
JM In my experience as an artist, I’ve been several times in the “first wave” of gentrification … for example in the Bay Area, I lived in the Mission District. Prior to artists like myself it was mostly working class, mostly Mexican. And the artists come because it’s affordable, and then in the next wave some people come because they want to be around an emerging scene, and then in the next wave people come because it’s now considered a good neighborhood, and each stage, the rent doubles. How do you place yourself within the theme of gentrification?
DJA Well, when I moved to Brooklyn, the neighborhood, Carroll Gardens … the transformations were already well underway. Restaurant row had already been established. Our landlords are actually old school Carroll Gardens [residents], they own the Red Rose restaurant, and if you are ever in there, the clientele is completely different from any other restaurant on Smith Street. A lot of people who grew up in the neighborhood and they’ve moved away, but they come back and socialize there. And our landlords, they never really leave Brooklyn, and they sort of hold court in the restaurant every night with all their old friends. And they’ve seen all of the changes. So, when we moved in, the real estate broker that we used was a guy that taught wrestling to their son in high school, that kind of vibe. So their version of the neighborhood was almost gone by the time we moved in there. And I’ve seen the continual pace of change since we moved in. Now there’s so little remaining of the old Carroll Gardens, the changes are more like, new establishments that open and then close three months later. There’s not a lot of permanence there. There’s still a couple of hold outs, Esposito’s, the pork store, Domico’s coffee shop, they’ve been there since like 1948. But on Smith Street, a lot of it is the same kind of high pressure restaurant openings that used to be more a characteristic of Manhattan. But having said all that, I don’t think the piece is primarily about gentrification, it’s one of a lot of different concerns. People tend to focus on that when the hear about the piece. But I see it as about an artist who really gets totally absorbed in a project and loses touch with his community. Communities are always in flux. There are communities that deal with the influx of new residents in a positive way, with a mutually beneficial result, and there are communities where that doesn’t work at all. So I think, mainly what we were talking about … the important thing is to try to make a go of it, to be in touch with the people that you live nearby, and to be aware, to participate in community life.
DZ It’s not really about gentrification in the sense that it’s been defined. But as you said communities are always in flux. The reasons why people move around are changing. Of course those waves of immigrants coming from Europe, they were not coming to America because there was a vibrant art scene in New York! They were coming because they didn’t have anything to eat back there [at home]. And still, there are people coming because they can’t survive. And they’re not coming happily here, they’re coming to survive. They see a place where, maybe I’ll find a job. Then there are people who are moving around just because they can. And the changes are just faster and faster, and it’s probably harder on people who were born there, to see they’re neighborhood disappearing in front of their eyes, than for me, because I came from somewhere else anyway, and I don’t know how long I’m staying. So I see it, but it doesn’t touch me in the same way. But, I’m also just trying to find a place to live and work and pay the rent. So what do you do?
JM I found it personally painful, and uncomfortable. At the same time, it was what I needed to do; I needed to pay cheap rent, because I’m an artist trying to live. Your piece may not be about gentrification, but i feel a part of the emotional soul of your piece confronts those issues.
DJA Well certainly the idea of finding neighborhood and community as a source of meaning in your life is very present.
JM What are some of your orchestration influences in terms of textures?
DJA Well first off I knew that I wanted to draw on a very wide palette, for this, representing some of movement from heights to plunging depths in the piece … so I have people playing every from like the contrabass clarinet up to piccolo at the very top of its range, just to have that sense of scale. But like a lot of the specific textures in the piece come from the demands of the narrative, wanting to recreate the atmosphere of a busy city street, walking down the street with a sense of purpose, walking through a cavernous grand hall with paintings hung. So a lot of the specific musical textures were meant to reflect what was going on through the imagery. Another thing that was really important to me was that the piece reflect my idea of Brooklyn and the musical life of Brooklyn … . so there’s a lot of influences drawn from what I see as the best music that’s been featured at Next Wave, and BAM, and the kind of post minimalist school that’s often been associated with the Bang on a Can composers. So there’s elements of those post minimalist rhythms, there’s a lot of Brooklyn dance punk, especially Chk Chk Chk (!!!), and LCD Soundsystem, I wanted that to be part of the fabric. And there’s a lot of independent contemporary jazz stuff that happens in Brooklyn, there’s this club Barbesthat has … a Brooklyn-based Balkan influenced band called Slavic Soul Party, they play every Tuesday night, and there’s another group that plays Mexican brass music in that space. So a lot of the folkloric stuff was coming a little out of that Barbes scene … and I wanted to bring these things together in a way that made sense for me and felt like it was part of the same musical fabric. To try and combine all of the music I listen to on a daily basis and feels like it has some kind of Brooklyn-based association for me, and to synthesize that into a consistent language for the piece.
DZ Yes, I know their work and I like it a lot. Ben Katchor, “The Jew of New York.”
JM Yeah, and Julius Knipfel, “Real Estate Photographer.”
DZ I first encountered him in Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine. Sort of this very surreal world, it’s very interesting, yeah.
JM The ghost of an earlier New York, just beneath the surface.
DZ But if you’re asking about some influences in comics, there’s always this one guy that definitely influenced me more than anyone else, José Muñoz. It’s black and white, shadow and light, very Expressionistic. The stories (with writer Sampayo) are very beautiful. And when I saw one of these stories, when I was maybe 15 years old, that’s the first time I realized the expressive potential this media could have, and it made me want to do something with telling the stories through images. I’m interested in the way the words and visuals can be combined in different ways, where you can have words that don’t necessarily follow the images, and you can create this space between words and images, almost like a third space, third dimension. That’s a beautiful thing that sometimes can be used really well in telling the story. Almost like two parallel lines, with something happening in between … But yes, it was very much, Italian comics, the South American school. Basically, Punk rock in Italy didn’t happen in music, it happened in comics, and it was just fascinating. This comic magazine, Frigidaire, that blew us away, like 14, 15, it was like seeing a punk concert.
JM KW Jeter is credited with coining the term “Steampunk”, in describing his own novel Infernal Devices. Darcy, your music has been associated with this term, and I assume your earlier record Infernal Machines, may be a nod to [K.W.] Jeter?
DJA No, Infernal Machines actually comes from a quote by John Phillip Sousa, a band leader and sort of the March king … He was the closest thing that the late 19th century had to a rock star, thousands of people would come to his concerts in the bandshell and public park and whatnot … he was extremely wealthy through music publishing and live appearances with his enormous band. That term comes from when he was testifying before congress about the impact of the phonographic cylinder, the Edison cylinder. He was very much against music-recording technology and thought that it would result in there not being a vocal chord left in America, because it was transforming everyone from a participatory culture of singing to one of sort of passive listening. He refers to mechanical sound reproduction as those “infernal machines” which are going night and day. And it’s funny, I knew about the quote and I was attracted to it, and I saw Larry Lessig give a speech and he used the same quote and made it the centerpiece of this speech that he was giving on remix culture. There’s all kinds of resonances for that quote, but what planted the seed was that John Phillip Souza quote about the dangers of new fangled music technology.
JM Was Sousa right? (laughter)
DJA Well, I think it’s interesting … any new music technology is a double-edged sword… When I saw that Larry Lessig was gonna use the quote, what I thought he was going to use it for was a demonstration of the paranoia that surrounds new music technologies, and how every generation something new comes around and the people from the old guard are terrified and try to stop it. But actually, Lessig does believe that Sousa was right, and there was a fundamental transformation in society from, if you wanted to hear music you had to get together with your friends and make it yourself, or you had to arrange to be in the presence of professional musicians in some capacity—that’s what you had to do if you wanted to hear music. And with the recording era (which I love, and I wouldn’t want to roll back the recording era!) it ushered in a fundamental change in the way people apprehend music, and it did go to a much more passive thing of listening to the radio or listening to the phonograph as opposed to gathering around the piano and singing it yourself. For Lessig, the remix culture of people creating their own mashups on Youtube or making their own versions of songs or even doing instructional videos on like, how to play the bassline from I Want You Back.
JM Right, right. (laughter)
DJA You know … sometimes technology results in a less participatory culture, as happened with the recording devices, and sometimes technology enables a more participatory culture.
Jeremy Mage is a composer, producer and songwriter living in New York City. Find out more about his projects by clicking here.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.