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Review of the Brooklyn Babylon performance Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Holland Festival

by John L. Walters, music writer and Eye editor

Brooklyn Babylon, a multimedia spectacular by Darcy James Argue and Danijel Žeželj, raises the roof at the Holland Festival. In the critic’s lexicon, there are few terms more problematic than ‘multimedia’, writes John L. Walters. The term can point to anything from grand opera to gallery exhibitions with broken headphones dangling forlornly from monitors – it can be used to wave vaguely in the direction of a hundred aesthetic sins. So it is a pleasure (and relief) to report that Brooklyn Babylon, the collaboration between Canadian composer Darcy James Argue and Croatian artist Danijel Žeželj, was a triumph.
The recent performance at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ on the penultimate night of the Holland Festival was only the second performance of this ambitious work, which involves an eighteen-piece orchestra, projected animations and real-time painting. The musicians – Argue’s Grammy-winning band Secret Society – are in the costume of 1900s blue-collar workers, with hats and overalls. Sometimes they play off-stage, or walk through the auditorium, and Argue conducts the opening section from a high balcony. Yet there’s no sense that any aspect of this complex music is compromised by the staging.
Žeželj, whose wordless graphic fable Babilon gives the work its mood and structure, participated by painting live during the performance on a narrow horizontal canvas erected behind the stage, while his animations play on a screen that descends for each of the work’s eight main sections. The audience could witness the progress of Žeželj’s painting during the
seven interludes and the opening Prologue. The flat-capped painter worked steadily in black and red paint using brushes and a variety of rollers, some of which had patterned surfaces. (A live video camera also projected Žeželj’s mark-making in close-up.) The resulting painting-in-progress was a sharply defined cityscape that showed people and places from the Brooklyn Babylon story – craftsman Lev, his grand-daughter and the giant Tower of Brooklyn, a metaphor for the insensitive ambitions of city mayors and developers everywhere.
Žeželj’s animations are far from conventional: they are frequently made by photographing artwork in the process of making, and they have a spaciousness that responds well to the grain of Argue’s jazz score.
Five minutes before the end, as the Secret Society launched into Brooklyn Babylon’s magnificent and grandiose Epilogue, Žeželj had a further dramatic surprise in store. Starting at the far right of his canvas, he steadily painted out the completed image using a roller loaded with thick black paint. So by the time the Amsterdam audience members had leapt to their feet to applaud this visceral, multilayered and hugely rewarding work, Žeželj’s artwork was gone, its details as evanescent as the notes that had filled the air of the concert hall. But both sound and image will live on in our collective memories of this dynamite performance.
You can get a taste of Brooklyn Babylon on Argue’s album (which I reviewed for LondonJazz) on New Amsterdam Records, and in Žeželj’s wordless novel Babilon (Petikat, 2013).
Neither fully prepares one for the impact of this multimedia magnum opus. Let’s hope that adventurous festival programmers and concert promoters worldwide find the courage (and wherewithal) to give Brooklyn Babylon a home on their stages.

Brooklyn Babylon was performed at Bimhuis / Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ on
Monday 24 June as part of the Holland Festival.
Brooklyn Babylon credits.
Jim Findlay: video design
Isaac Butler: consulting director
Paloma Young: costumes
Scott Bolman: lighting design
Beth Morrison Projects: creative producer
Commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Next Wave Festival

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