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.
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.
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.