(Program notes adapted from Sounds Heard—Corey Dargel: Someone Will Take Care of Me by Frank J. Oteri, published in New Music Box, 20 July, 2010)
For nearly a decade Corey Dargel has been making extraordinarily weird musical concepts sound natural and almost mainstream by packaging them as popular songs. Irregular meters and phrases, totalist polyrhythms, and unstable harmonic movement are commonplace throughout his oeuvre. On his earlier self-produced cry those sweet sweet tears on out (2003), he even experiments with alternate tunings. But all of these advanced musical techniques are never ends in and of themselves; in fact, since these devices serve his songs so well, a casual listener might not even realize all of what’s going on in Dargel’s electronically generated song accompaniments. One of his songs—”Boy Detective” (which appears on his initial 2006 commercial release, Less Famous Than You)—is actually as infectious and tune-worm inducing as ubiquitous FM radio fare. It would not sound out of place in rotation with the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby,” The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” or the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Yet Dargel’s lyrics usually belie something far more off-kilter than most Top 40 fodder, whether he’s singing about the aftermath of an appendectomy (as in “My Voice Is In Your Head” from his 2009 Other People’s Love Songs) or delightfully exploring unapologetically homoerotic content (as in his “Gay Cowboys,” also from Less Famous Than You). Ultimately Dargel’s pop-song trappings are a façade that lulls you into a false sense of security as a listener; before you know it, you’re bopping your head to a very complex series of beats, humming a melody that doesn’t quite line up with those beats, and thinking about the world in a way that you most likely would never have thought about it before.
But if Corey Dargel’s output has always been the work of a singer-songwriter who engages in heady compositional strategies, he completely ups the ante with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences and its clear allusion to the sound world of “classical” song cycles. The completely acoustic work exclusively uses the ubiquitous contemporary classical music combination described by insiders as “Pierrot plus percussion”; Pierrot meaning flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin, cello, and piano, since that combo was first used by none other than Arnold Schoenberg in his 1912 song cycle Pierrot lunaire.
The lyrics for Thirteen Near-Death Experiences explore hypochondria in a variety of manifestations: paranoia about mortality, assumptions about the real cause of acne, and dysfunctional doctor-patient relationships—a crush-driven patient who keeps going to a doctor in the hopes that he will be paid attention to in a more than medical way.
Some specific analytical details for a few of the songs should give you some idea of how Dargel treats these subjects musically. While stably in G major, “Ritalin”—in which stunted growth (both physically and emotionally) is blamed on the prescription drug—is exclusively in the stunted meter of 11/8, a cycle that is a beat too short. Dargel somehow makes this unwieldy rhythm flow, even groove, with Reichian maracas and despite even the occasional oddball syncopation—a repeated four-note melodic phrase that is gradually elongated over the course of 25 beats. The tender and introspective “What Will It Be for Me” (two songs later) achieves its mystery, at least in part, by overlapping irregular subdivisions of 3, 5, and 7, which completely punctures and unhinges the otherwise regular 4/4 meter. It’s the kind of metrical fancywork that abounds in contemporary scores ranging from Morton Feldman to Elliott Carter, but rather than resulting in unsettling angularity or disjointedness, it is always stunningly beautiful. It is also completely diatonic, ostensibly in C major, although a clear functional tonal pull is obviated by a lack of clear dominant-tonic progressions.
Despite how effectively the words and music flow together, Dargel attests that he created the accompaniments for all of this material before ever coming up with any of the vocal melodies or lyrics. In fact, he claims that is how he has created all of his songs over the past decade. This approach is the exact opposite of the intuitive processes of most guitar or keyboard based singer-songwriters who traditionally create a song first and then later devise an appropriate accompaniment. But perhaps this level of pre-determination strikes to the heart of what makes Dargel a “composer, singer, songwriter” rather than a “singer-songwriter.” It is telling that this triple moniker, with composer first, is how Dargel identifies himself on his website.
It might initially seem extremely anachronistic—especially to people who subscribe to the notion that barriers between musical genres no longer exist except in the minds of marketers—to draw a distinction here between singer-songwriters and composers. And clearly from a semantic point of view if you are writing the music as well as the lyrics for songs you are writing music, although if you are a composer you are not necessarily writing songs. However, a schism between songwriting and composition still exists in the minds of a great many songwriters as well as the large number of composers who do not actually write songs. In addition, it is a very different activity to create something for your own performance (whether songs or solo instrumental compositions) and material that is meant to be played by, ideally, anyone other than yourself. It is akin to the difference between subjective and objective writing, first vs. third person narration. Plus songs tend to be more immediate to most listeners because of their (usually) relative brevity, intimacy (because of—again usually—relatively pared down instrumentation), and directness (due to the use of words in addition to music). Therefore to ask whether someone’s conceptual frame of reference is that of a singer-songwriter or a composer is not an unreasonable question. And most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell who’s who, including in the case of Corey Dargel. His output heretofore has always consisted of songs, albeit extremely complex and unusual ones. And what he has written up to this point is less related to contemporary composition than it is to the comparable achievements of the most sophisticated auteurs in popular music from Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to Tori Amos and Sufjan Stevens.
One of the key distinctions between writing songs for one’s own use (in live performance or recordings) and creating notated compositions is that those compositions can have performance histories well beyond the involvement of their creators. Despite his involvement of other performers in order to realize this song cycle (which is completely notated), Corey Dargel the performer—the singer-songwriter—is clearly still the centerpiece of these performances and his vocals are as completely mesmerizing, in best singer-songwriter fashion, as they have always been. But could or should this music ever be performed without him? How different would such a realization be? In a recent email correspondence, Dargel claimed he would be comfortable with other ensembles performing the instrumental parts, but he is not yet willing for someone else to sing:
When my singing voice weakens with age, as almost all singing voices do, I’ll consider letting other people sing the songs, but for the time being I believe my physical voice and my compositional voice are intertwined.
So perhaps Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, though Dargel’s most compositionally oriented work in all of his output to date, is singer-songwriter material after all! Ultimately it can be listened to, analyzed, and appreciated on a variety of levels, like the most enduring music of any genre.
Thirteen Near-Death Experiences was commissioned through the MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Its creation was supported in part through a residency at the MacDowell Colony.