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Introducing: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

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Ed. note: If you missed our first post on New Amsterdam Records yesterday, be sure to check it out here. Today, we continue with Part 2 of our little series by introducing you to one of their exciting, new artists, Darcy James Argue.

By the way, Darcy and his big band, Secret Society will be debuting their new album live at Galapagos as part of this Friday's Undiscovered Islands music festival in Brooklyn. Click here to learn more.

Breaking News!... We're giving away a free copy of Infernal Machines at the end of the interview below!

During the "˜30s and "˜40s, big bands dominated the radios and dance halls, swinging on the top pop charts from the jazz age right up until rock and roll took the world by storm in the early "˜50s.

But big bands (defined as generally a dozen to two dozen musicians) never completely went the way of the dinosaur; they hung around, playing fancy weddings, The Johnny Carson Show, of course (ba-da-ba-daaa-ba"¦), and even made a brief, trendy comeback when Harry Connick Jr. re-popularized old jazz standards and Broadway tunes for a new generation in When Harry Met Sally.

So what about today, in a music scene dominated by computers? Can the big band thrive without falling back on the music of the "˜30s and "˜40s, a la HC Jr? Composer/conductor Darcy James Argue thinks so.

6a00d8341e689653ef0112796999fc28a4-800wi1.jpgHe's got a debut album out called Infernal Machines, featuring his band, Secret Society. With five winds, about a dozen brass players and a tight rhythm section (guitar, piano, bass, drums), Argue's Secret Society imagines what would have happened to big band jazz had it continued to evolve through the "˜50s and "˜60s, right up until today.

Argue's music is a fusion of many different sounds, incorporating everything from hip-hop to straight ahead rock, from jazzy ballads to driving blues. On his Web site, he calls it Steampunk Big Band (more on that in my interview with Argue below),

For example, check out this excerpt from the first track off Infernal Machines called "Phobos" (that's one of Mars's moons, in case you forgot).

That cool, funky beat sounds like something right out of a drum and bass track. But when it's met with a distorted guitar, it starts to sound like Radiohead. Then the Secret Society winds and horns swell in and the summation is pure Darcy James Argue.

[read on for more excerpts and a brief Q&A with the bandleader himself]

But not to give you the idea that Argue's Secret Society is only about a fusion of styles; they DO do straight ahead jazz too, and they do it well. Take the following example from the last cut on the album, "Obsidian Flow."

But this is just an excerpt from the song. When you listen to the whole track, which is nearly 10 minutes long, you once again begin to hear the band veering off into the world of progressive rock, and other styles.

Q&A with Darcy James Argue

1. Talk a little bit about what you call Steampunk Big Band. A lot of our readers are probably familiar with Steampunk fantasy fiction, but as it applies to music, not so much.

DJA: Honestly, it started as a lark, really, just casting about for something to put in the "Sounds Like" field when I first set up the band's MySpace page. But I do feel the label captured something of what I'm trying to due with Secret Society, which is to take what is essentially a very old-fashioned form of music technology -- the jazz big band -- and repurpose it for futuristic ends.

The big band originally rose to popularity in the 30's and 40's because in those pre-amplification days, if you wanted to have a really slammin' party, you needed a *lot* of saxophones and brass instruments to fill up the ballroom with their sound. The rise of the PA system changed all of that, obviously. Still, there's something very attractive to me about taking an ensemble that is so strongly associated with a particular time, place, and sound, and then re-imagining it for the present day.

2. The title of your new album Infernal Machines comes from a 1906 John Philip Sousa quote about the recording industry. Sousa said, "These talking machines are going to 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 cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

Obviously this idea resonated with you, but do you really agree? Couldn't it be argued that these machines have allowed people to make music who otherwise couldn't because they lacked the skill, talent, or were even perhaps, tone-deaf?

DJA: I picked the quote because it so perfectly illustrates how the fear of new music technology is not anything new. Sousa -- who was, by far, the biggest rock star of his day -- comes off sounding a bit like Grandpa Simpson here. I actually came to the quote via Larry Lessig, who has used it in his lectures on copyright and Creative Commons -- but he thinks Sousa was right! In his view, the rise of recorded music -- the "infernal machines" -- decimated participatory (read-write) culture in the Western world. In place of "young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs" -- in other words, if you want music in your life you need to make it yourself -- you have young people passively consuming on-demand recorded music, i.e., read-only culture.

Obviously it's not quite so simple as that -- records have always and will always inspire people to start their own bands. And of course it would be awfully hypocritical of me to put out a record if I was secretly pining for a world without recorded music. But there is also something potent about Sousa's vision of kids gathering to sing songs on summer evenings because they needed music in their lives, and singing it themselves was the only way they could get it. I love technology as much as the next utopian-minded geek, but technology has consequences and it's good to remind ourselves of that.


3. Egos in bands always produce fights on the road, in the studio. And here you're traveling/working with 18 other musicians! Obviously you're the bandleader, but how do you manage all the personalities?

DJA: I mostly play traffic cop on stage -- when the conductor starts making sounds as well it's usually a sign that something has gone pretty seriously amiss.

I would like to say I rule with an iron fist, but that's not really the way it works. Everyone in the group is a fantastic and in-demand musician and they all have much more lucrative things they could be doing with their time than rehearsing and performing my stuff. I won't pretend rehearsals are always all sunshine and waterfalls -- it's incredibly demanding music and it takes a lot out of all of us -- but at the end of the day we are all in it for the music.

Want to score a free copy of Infernal Machines? All you have to do is drop a comment below telling us what your favorite big band song is. We'll randomly pluck one of the comments and send you the CD! It's that easy

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part 3! And check out past On Music posts here.

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5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)
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[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)

"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)

Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.

Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?

The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":

3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):

5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James

Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

Check out past On Music posts here >>

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Shazam, Shlemiel, Shlimazel
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I've used Shazam on and off over the years to I.D. songs I either forgot the names of or just never knew. But the real test of any music recognition software is whether or not it can tell me what's playing on a classical music station. This is where you really need the app to come through because, let's face it, it could be 30 minutes or more before the piece ends and the radio announcer comes back on to tell you. Sadly, every time I've tried, the app has come up empty. I've even tested it with well-known pieces, like Barber's Adagio for Strings. Instead of coming back with at least "The theme from Platoon," Shazam says the piece is "unrecognized." What would Samuel Barber say?

Deciphering classical music presents a lot of challenges. For starters, recordings are indistinguishable when you're talking about a 12-second sample size. For example, there are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony! Not quite like learning the beat of a B52s song, is it?

Tempi vary wildly from recording to recording and, as I understand it, it's the tempo/beat mapping that Shazam is really working off of. But technology will improve, rest assured. The Shazams of the future will surely be able to not only distinguish between Mozart's Requiem and Berlioz's Requiem, but the hundreds of recordings of each. Until then, well, I guess the beat goes on...

Have any funny or interesting experiences with music recognition software? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out all the ON MUSIC posts here.

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