Composers light on all manner of subject matter for their work, but leave it to Darcy James Argue to read Kathryn S. Olmsted’s “Real Enemies” – “a social history of paranoia in the United States since World War I,” and think, “Maybe there’s a show in here.”
Argue, 41, is at the forefront of a group of musicians, including the likes of Maria
Schneider and John Hollenbeck, writing ambitious pieces for jazz orchestra. This is not music for your great-granddaddy’s swing band — like the rest of jazz, big band writing long ago left the dance floor behind. And like Schneider and Hollenbeck (all three studied with the influential composer and New England Conservatory professor Bob Brookmeyer), Argue explores rich orchestral color and adventurous harmonies and rhythms, but with his own distinctive body-moving grooves and settings for bravura solos.
His “Real Enemies” gets its Boston premiere when Argue and his 18-piece band, the Secret Society, play the Museum of Fine Arts on Oct. 7, following a CD release on Sept. 30. The album emerged from 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 success at BAM, and they wanted another. 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 first, 2009’s “Infernal Machines,” was nominated for a Grammy.
For the new piece, Argue wanted a nonfiction subject. His girlfriend, the journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, recommended the Olmsted.
Working with the writer Isaac Butler, Argue developed a 13-chapter scenario for “Real Enemies,” drawing on the writings of Olmsted and the 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 dread. Throughout the 78-minute piece, snippets of spoken-word recordings drop into the music — including bits of JFK, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Jimmy Carter.
Musically, Argue based each section on a different “tone row,” using the system developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s 12-tone method became the template of academic modernism, and film composers drew on it particularly to create noir-ish moods. You can hear this influence in the tense harmonies, unmoored from a tonal center, 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 as 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 filmmaking.”
These modern tones are braced by Argue’s pulsating grooves. The Nicaraguan composer Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s “Un Son Para Mi Pueblo,” which became a Sandanista-era anthem of social justice and pan-Latin solidarity, serves as the setting for “Dark Alliance,” a musical depiction of CIA conspiracy during the revolutionary upheavals in Nicaragua. For the section “Casus Belli,” Argue was inspired by a vintage recording made by Cuban bandleader Machito to promote an upstate New York resort. Argue imagined “CIA operatives sitting around the pool . . . planning how to kill Castro.”
Elsewhere, rock and funk beats dominate, and passages of Argue’s signature layered cyclical rhythms underscore the “paranoid style” of the piece. Bravura solo sections – featuring, among others, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, flugelhorn player Jonathan Powell, alto sax Dave Pietro, and guitarist Sebastian Noelle – set against Argue’s detailed, glittering backgrounds, provide 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, meant to reference all the conspiracies – both real and theoretical – from the Iran-contra scandal to religious cults and the “faked” 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, augmented by only those spoken-word drop-ins.
Argue says he’s tried to present his musical history of political paranoia more or less objectively, even while the conspiracies become more and more outlandish as “Real Enemies” unfolds – “from concrete evidence all the way out to crazy town at the end.” But he’s also well aware that conspiratorial thinking “is a very powerful tool that can be used to undermine political power” and to deny political power “from those who are already powerless.”
Among all the various snippets of spoken-word audio (as well as an extended final voice-over narration by actor James Urbaniak), there’s one that stands out as surprisingly self-referential: John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech about “secret societies” that undermine freedom throughout the world. At the time, JFK was talking about communism. But is that speech, in fact, the source of the Secret Society’s name? Argue demurs: “I plead the Fifth on that.”
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20-$30. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.