Defining Corey Dargel

Defining Corey Dargel

Ordinarily I write my posts on Friday mornings, but this week’s was written almost a full week ago. This anomalous timeline owes directly to a concert I attended that evening given by Corey Dargel, Todd Reynolds, and Ensemble 61 at the SPCO’s Music Room in St. Paul. I’ve written a little about Dargel here before, but there’s no better time than right now —10:19 p.m., November 9, 2011—to write some more. The question implicit in my previous post on Dargel’s music was simple: Why am I not doing this? I think I have an answer now, and it’s not the one I expected to have.

Corey Dargel and Ensemble 61 at the SPCO's Music Room in St. Paul

How do we even begin to understand this guy? A dehydrated Irving Berlin? A gentle Texan Ian Dury? A Laurie Anderson to whom we can be genuinely sympathetic? A Glenn Tilbrook with a severe guitar allergy? People (including probably me at one point) have spilled mad ink trying to define just what he is, but that’s silly: He’s a singer and songwriter whose means of production are very purposefully those of contemporary concert music. Can we finally stop with the Venn diagrams now? I used to think that he was telling us quite straightforwardly to consider him a composer, period, but of course he is also a performer, and my difficulty dealing with his music in the past owes largely to my inability to look past Corey Dargel the writer of notes and see (see!) Corey Dargel the graceful yet emotionally monolithic singer. He is another one of Baudrillard’s ubiquitous implosions of the live and the mediatized, and he must be seen.

Even a charitable observer would have to admit that something about Dargel’s appearance and stage presence quietly defies the conventionally human. His songs are suffused with empathy, but he maintains a relationship with the audience that is at least brushed with Brechtian distance and at most fully submerged, mise’d, in a kind of Jamesonian is-it-even-ironic abîme. Medieval music is a useful reference point: The semantics of affect and musical surface we’ve come to know and love have been severed, returned to their pre-Enlightenment separation.

Corey Dargel and Todd Reynolds at the SPCO's Music Room in St. Paul

Dargel could be singing about dreams or drugs or disasters, but you’d never know it without the words, particularly in the case of the very tight Every Day is the Same Day. The cycle trades on a peculiar combination: the chilling exactitude of Dargel’s vocal ornamentation, which he approaches with composerly abstraction, and Reynolds’ looped violin, which takes us on a grand tour of pre-Romantic court music and leaves us wondering what happened to the other vingt-trois violons du Roy. (Some of them must be imprisoned in Reynolds’ hardware.) In the slightly older Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, our very own ably jaunty Ensemble 61 accompanied Dargel as he dwelt on poor health in thirteen more or less different ways. His lyrics got a few laughs (he never met an “-ation” he didn’t rhyme), but it was impossible, really, to tell whether or not and in what ways he might have actually meant what he was saying. He sings the words “far and wide” over the kind of yearning 6/8 that Tracey Thorn and Tim Rice would have fought over two seconds of, which is fitting – because two seconds of it is all we get before he moves on to another spiky meter and spunky texture. He can’t possibly expect us to take something so trite at face value, can he? Maybe he can. If we were sure either way, the magic would be lost. His deadpan line about bedpans is too dead for comfort, and that’s a big part of its genius.

So, to the question: Why am I not doing this? Because it’s not something you can just do. It turns out that you have to be Corey Dargel to do it. At least, that’s my hypothesis, one that I would love the chance to test: If I had the money, I’d commission him to write a cycle of songs for me to sing, and we’d see what happens. I’ve never said that about a composer before in my life, but after finally seeing him perform I can’t imagine not saying it.

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12 thoughts on “Defining Corey Dargel

  1. Marc Geelhoed

    Summary: Corey Dargel writes music like no one else can, because he is also the one singing and performing it onstage. This sets him apart from other living composers, whose music is meant to be reproduced, or is able to be approximately reproduced, without their onstage participation.

  2. colin holter

    Thank you, Marc, for delivering everybody from the tedium of reading my post.

    I want to quibble with one part of your summary, though: I think other people could certainly write music like Dargel, but because one never hears it without also hearing him, certain embodied qualities that are unique to him inhere in it. The noteheads on the page exist mainly to give him something to sing; he seems to have configured his whole aesthetic such that without his personal presence, those notes don’t do anything, or at least they can’t easily be imagined to do so ex post facto (hence my hypothesis).

    Dargel challenges Adorno’s dictum that every performance is a replica of an original that doesn’t exist by making all of the replicas himself: Because all of the performances are projections of his own subjectivity that come to life only when physically inhabited by him, the original and the replica are indistinguishable, so the whole question of replica and original – that is, of the Platonic work-object – is kind of made irrelevant. None of this would work if his performance weren’t calibrated so precisely against the decisions he made before stepping onstage (i.e., the compositions).

    I’m gritting my teeth in preparation for the use of the P-word, but only in a condition of postmodernity could someone develop such an intricate, comprehensive means to prevent the alienation of his cultural labor.

    1. j109

      I don’t disagree, but I don’t see what the fuss is about. This kind of artistic scenario has been increasingly the norm in the pop world since the Beatles first started to break away from doing standards, if not earlier. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is not really the song if not the Beatles original; there is no Platonic ideal. Since then we’ve had people like Kurt Cobain, whose music with Nirvana is beyond replication. The songs are not really the songs unless he’s performing them.

      Anytime you have composers exclusively or near-exclusively performing their own music there is a possibility (I’d argue more a probability or even certainty) that the unique aspects of the composer’s performance style will become inextricably associated with the music itself, such that there will cease to be a distinction between a work and its performance. This may be the case for Dargel, but it’s also the case for hundreds, probably thousands of other musicians. Whatever you want to say about his music, I don’t really think it represents anything culturally groundbreaking or even unusual. On the contrary, these days the truly exotic cultural items are those works which DO recognize a distinction between original and replica.

  3. kt

    Corey is queer, in the deepest sense of the word. Queer as in, binaries are useless. Queer as in, you cannot pay attention without asking questions. Queer as in, hold on, the strangeness of this situation makes me notice more things I take for granted. The fact that it is difficult to place him comfortably into “composer” or “singer/songwriter” is part and parcel of what makes his music compelling. He makes us question both categories, as well he should. His deadpan performance reflects a certain sincerity that is product of the inextricable relationship between current day (not “contemporary”) music and “songs/songwriting.” Corey is a performer in multiple meanings of the word–not only is he a singer, he is a company member of the cutting-edge Laboratory Theatre. He is mindful and conscientious of his performative presence and exploits his own virtuosity. I think people become uncomfortable with his music–both in performance and composition–because he does everything within his power not to tell the audience what to think or how to feel. I know Corey has his own opinions about what he writes. Sometimes he is earnest, sometimes he is ironic or critical, and some times–most times, I believe–he is a combination of both. Is this not a rich form to engage with? Can we not enjoy this fact? My only concern is for the difficulty Corey must have in promotion and funding, as his liminal work makes it difficult for funders and press to “Categorize.”

  4. Marc Geelhoed

    “but because one never hears it without also hearing him, certain embodied qualities that are unique to him inhere in it.” This means, I think, that it’s not possible to hear a Dargel piece as performed independently of Dargel, and so therefore it’s impossible to get to some sort of a Platonic ideal (the “ur-Dargel,” if you will). I admit this is unique and impressive, but don’t quite understand the need for all the barbed-wire language used to describe it. But if it helps you, have at it!

  5. Colin Holter

    I admit this is unique and impressive, but don’t quite understand the need for all the barbed-wire language used to describe it. But if it helps you, have at it!

    If you don’t know what the prefix “ur-” means (funny enough, I was just talking to somebody the other day who didn’t), “ur-” is barbed-wire language. I’m just trying to articulate as precisely as possible what I find so interesting, and if that means getting into some jargon, so be it – although I will say that I’ve tried to say what I have to say as plainly as I can.

    Plus, nothing’s stopping anyone from cracking some Jameson, for instance, and getting the necessary background.

  6. Joseph Holbrooke

    I also don’t understand the fuss. Id guess that composers writing song forms specifically for themselves as performers is the single most common format for music on earth today. If Corey is good at it or not is another question, but his chosen medium is as ordinary as they come.

  7. Colin Holter

    Id guess that composers writing song forms specifically for themselves as performers is the single most common format for music on earth today.

    Again, what I think makes it remarkable is that Dargel writes song forms, then gives them to new music ensembles to play – very few people do that.

    1. Joseph Holbrooke

      Colin, I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but from where I stand almost everyone around me is working this way. On the other hand, my understanding of song forms, composing, and new music ensembles might be too loose for your tastes.

      1. Rob

        Joseph, well said.

        I’ve been following Dargel for a while now. I don’t find his music particularly to my liking, but I’ll acknowledge he’s talented and it’s interesting. As much as I don’t like his singing style, for example, I commend him for having the gusto to do what he’s doing. A real artist.

        But, for people to say what he’s doing is totally unique and new is a bit far fetched. It’s not, and if you think it is you need to broaden your musical perspectives. I think too many of us confuse, segregate, and pre-qualify with certain labels when all that matters is he is an artist in the medium of music.

        1. colin holter

          But, for people to say what he’s doing is totally unique and new is a bit far fetched. It’s not, and if you think it is you need to broaden your musical perspectives.

          Debating whether or not a particular musical practice is “totally unique and new” is destined to be an unhelpful exercise in goalpost-moving. In fact, I’m not even sure that the newness of a music – that is, in relation only to other music – is a relevant or meaningful yardstick. You can’t deny, however, that what Dargel does is calibrated very precisely to the cultural circumstances of the present moment. I’d say that’s the case because of how he prosecutes being “an artist in the medium of music” (i.e., his specificity within that ill-defined rubric).

          Besides, I’ll thank you not to comment on the dimensions of my musical perspectives, person with no last name who doesn’t know me.

  8. Eleanor Taylor

    My voice/piano duo, Two Sides Sounding, with pianist Jocelyn Dueck commissioned a cycle from Corey a few years back called Con Dolcezza (with Sweetness), a group of songs set to speeches by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and I have since heard another group of his called Sexual Side Effects that are performed by a soprano.

    I am very aware of Corey’s extremely beautiful and singular style in interpreting his own music, but he also does write for others whose interpretations diverge from his own. There seems to be some question here of whether he does write for other voices? He also performs the work of others.

    To me this means he is a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer (or singer-songwriter if you prefer). He is brilliantly talented enough to do all these things well – but then I am biased enough to have commissioned work from him (and, apparently, have lots of money too – thanks for that!)

    Glad to see a dialogue about Corey’s work – it’s definitely worth talking about and certainly rather indefinable.


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