This weekend, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented a new work of originality, power, and beauty that left an audience slack-jawed. Brooklyn Babylon is a collaboration between the graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj and composer Darcy James Argue, and it is destined to be considered a classic of the evolving genre of multimedia performance.
Brooklyn Babylon is based on a narrative series of paintings by Zezelj, animated using a stop-motion technique something like that of William Kentridge’s hand-drawn films. In the story a master carpenter, a single father with a small daughter in tow, is summoned to the office of the mayor to receive an offer he can’t refuse: to build a carousel atop the highest tower in the world. The Tower of Brooklyn, which curves and swoops like a Frank Gehry building, will destroy the man’s neighborhood and isolate him and his daughter from their community. But the carousel on top (the carved scrollwork of which becomes the backbone of the building’s marketing) will make him famous.
The moving images are projected on a scrim above a set of risers that hold Darcy James Argue’s big band. Zezelj himself is behind the scrim, on a scaffold, painting a panoramic sweep of the city with a foam brush in black paint; the effect is very much like charcoal drawing. The projections on the scrim occasionally cut from the narrative film to close-ups of Zezelj working in real time. The device serves to ground the retro-styled, Expressionistic artwork in the present moment. BAM is only blocks from the Atlantic Yards, the site of a bitterly contentious land-use fight in which the state has used eminent domain to clear land for private development. Brooklyn Babylon can be seen as an allegory of the Yards battle, in which Frank Gehry played a key role. It’s no coincidence that Zezelj has the Tower of Brooklyn resemble Gehry’s work. But this is not a piece of political theater, and it will outlast even this drawn-out battle. With all the technological savvy on display, at the heart of this work is an old-fashioned story that would have felt familiar to Shakespeare.
Darcy James Argue is something of a phenomenon in his own right, a composer in his mid-30s who assembled his own big band, the Secret Society. The group’s first record, Infernal Machines, was nominated for a Grammy and left critics flabbergasted that someone had finally — finally! — made fully contemporary music within the brass-heavy big band tradition. Rooted in Ellington (and how could it not be), Argue’s writing is also informed by minimalism, Sonic Youth, Balkan brass, and the Tonight show band. It incorporates those influences without strain or even a hint of too-cuteness. In the mold of Ellington himself, Argue conducts this group like a virtuoso: the quiet parts will make you hold your breath, and the powerful parts fill you with an excitement that verges on terror.
It’s heartening that an institution as venerable as BAM, which celebrates its sesquicentennial this year, is still commissioning important new work from artists at the start of their careers. I’d hope to see the work touring widely. If neither of these artists has a MacArthur fellowship in five years, I’ll eat my Gehry.