Live in Brooklyn this Weekend: Darcy James Argue & Secret Society

I'll need a few more listens to grasp the measure of Darcy James Argue's new big-band piece, Real Enemies, but my first impression—gleaned from its premiere at BAM's Next Wave Festival, in Brooklyn, Wednesday night—is that it's a remarkable work, maybe an oddball masterpiece: riveting, head-spinning, at once spooky and witty, abstrusely complex and foot-tappingly propulsive.

It's a nearly two-hour, multimedia spectacle built around the theme of conspiracy theories and their central place in American society and culture, each of 12 chapters or movements devoted to specific phenomena—the Masons, the McCarthy Red Scare, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, all the way up to Edward Snowden's vision of total surveillance—written and directed by Isaac Butler (who also directed Argue's last BAM show, Brooklyn Babylon, in 2011), with film design by Peter Nigrini (a prominent Broadway designer).

Images, film clips, and text-crawls dart across one or more of 15 screens, three rows of five, above and behind Argue's 18-piece big band—fittingly called Secret Society—arrayed in a single-line crescent across the stage, dimly lit, the men dressed in brown suits and bowler hats, the women dressed in green, like the cast of an X Files episode. (As made clear in a taped monologue toward the end, much of it recited from Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Argue and his collaborators are drawn more to the phenomenon of conspiracy theories—what they reflect about the unease of modern life—than to any of the more wild-eyed claims.)

Argue's previous works—the aforementioned Brooklyn Babylon and, before then, Infernal Machines (both recorded on the New Amsterdam label)—have marked him as one of the two or three most arresting big-band composers on the scene, but Real Enemies takes a monumental leap. He composed it in 12-tone technique (to match the 12 hands of a clock, which dominate the stage and tick down with each of its 12 chapters, like the time-bomb of countless films noirs), but works in electro-funk, minimalism, movie themes (riffing off The Parallax View and The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, which also had 12-tone roots), and conventional jazz. And it all meshes together, it doesn't seem disjointed (except when he's trying to be disjointed); it swings, it freakin' rocks.

How he does this—that's what I didn't, couldn't, grasp at first listen; there's too much going on, aurally and visually. A recording will come out on CD next fall; I hope there's a companion DVD or booklet. Meanwhile, it plays at BAM through Sunday. Go see it if you're nearby.