David Byrne’s Changing of the Color Guard

Via The New York Times

By Brian Seibert

DAYTON, OHIO — You may find yourself in a mall in this medium-size Midwestern city. And you may sit in a food court with a few dozen high school students. And you may discuss a song you have written for them. And they may explain how they will throw flags and rifles and sabers. And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?

If you are Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the indie-pop bandLucius, the answer is David Byrne. That former Talking Heads frontman invited the women to Dayton in April to attend theWinter Guard Internationalchampionships. The synchronized manipulation of flags, rifles and sabers in a kind of dance routine — the practice called color guard — is known as a complement to marching bands in football halftime shows and parades at high schools and colleges. But after football season, color guard continues through the winter, indoors, performed to a range of recorded music, in organized circuits of judged competitions. Several hundred teams compete over three days at the championships in Dayton, the pinnacle of what organizers call “the Sport of the Arts.”


Mr. Byrne took Lucius to Ohio, along with the musicians Tom Krell ofHow to Dress Well and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, so that they might experience what he considers an underappreciated folk art. His enthusiasm for it is high. At the University of Dayton Arena during the finals, he watched more than five straight hours of competition raptly, expressing his wonderment with laughter and exclamations so barkingly intense that at one point he apologized to the man next to him.

Mr. Byrne wants to share that pleasure, and not just with the musicians who made the trip. They were all here to prepare for something unprecedented: an arena spectacle combining color guard teams with live music by artists of Mr. Byrne’s choosing. His lineup includes St. Vincent, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, Kelis, Nelly Furtado and Devonté Hynes, each matched with a color guard team. The food-court meeting between Lucius and Shenendehowa High School of Clifton Park, N.Y., was the start of one of 10 such collaborations. Later this month, the resulting cultural mash-up, “Contemporary Color,” will play two nights at the Air Canada Center in Toronto as part of the Luminato Festivaland then two more at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, in the first production partnership between Barclays and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Mr. Byrne didn’t find color guard so much as color guard found him. It was in 2008, he said in a recent interview, that a team from Cambridge, Mass., requested permission to use some of his music. Unfamiliar with color guard, he was intrigued by the choice — “The Forest,” made for a 1988 Robert Wilson theater work updating “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — and asked for a video of the result. The team sent a DVD of the championships, and when Mr. Byrne watched it his jaw dropped.

Color guard takes its name from soldiers responsible for guarding a regimental flag, or colors. That military origin accounts for the guards’ rifle-shaped wooden props and dull-edged sabers. But their military counterparts don’t toss their weapons high, spinning like jacks, and then catch them behind their backs. And though decades with marching bands and football are evident in the team spirit, some divergent evolution is clear, between tosses, in emotive choreography such as you might find on “So You Think You Can Dance.”


The dense multiplicity of action in the routines — four to five minutes long, during which a team of 20 to 40 people tries to rack up points — can be bewildering. The tosses come thick and fast and a knowledgeable audience rewards each catch with an ovation; an inexperienced viewer, with his eyes following one feat, keeps hearing that he’s missed the next. The continual charge of risk combines with stabs of irresistible beauty: 20 to 40 bright flags snap in the air like a flock of birds, and time is suspended as they float down. This all mixes oddly with themes that can be bizarre or heavy. This year, Mechanicsburg High School, from Pennsylvania, took on the topic of child abduction. In that routine, reprised for “Contemporary Color,” each member is dragged offstage, one by one, until no one is left.

Watching the DVD in 2008, Mr. Byrne had an idea. “What if,” he recalled thinking, “they had cool bands playing live? Then there would be no ceiling on the excitement.” Live music would match the color guard energy and set it in a new context, possibly drawing new audiences.

Mr. Byrne’s decisions of which teams to invite were guided partly by practicalities (most teams will come from the Northeast) and partly in pursuit of variety. Persuading the teams to try something different with “this ‘Psycho Killer’ guy,” Mr. Byrne said, took some careful effort.

His musician picks followed similar rationales: interesting artists he thought would be game — including himself. (Ira Glass, the host of radio’s “This American Life,” is not as random a choice as it may seem: Spoken text is curiously prevalent in winter guard soundtracks.)


For the musicians, most of them unfamiliar with color guard, an invitation from Mr. Byrne was sufficient. The pairings of team and musician were largely intuitive. The women of Lucius seemed a good match for the Shenendehowa team, whose 2015 theme was Hitchcock movies.

Themes were set first, though, and this was potentially awkward: The musicians would write new music for routines that the teams had created — and performed through a season of competition — to other compositions.

Ventures, one of two Canadian teams, was thrilled enough by the song that Ms. Furtado sent them — a track from her coming album — to substantially rechoreograph a routine to fit it. Ms. Garbus, working with the Emanon team from New Jersey, treated video footage of its robot routine as a movie to score, mapping out the original structure and following it; the team hasn’t had to adjust much. Lucius, big fans of Hitchcock, focused more on the right mood than on the routine’s framework. Shenendehowa loved the song but has struggled some to adapt.

Mr. Byrne recalled that when he delivered his music to Les Eclipses, from Montreal, “the team was kind of in shock.” In place of an instrumental piece with many long silences — a color guard convention for demonstrating team synchronization — he gave them a continuous song. Mr. Byrne made adjustments, but he credits much of the eventual rapprochement between team and music to Chris Giarmo, an associate producer of “Contemporary Color” whose mixed background in music, avant-garde dance-theater and the color guard of Paramus High School in New Jersey has helped him translate between factions.


Mr. Giarmo said that his most effective tactic for quelling team anxiety was simply to splice the new soundtrack onto footage of the existing routine. This is what Mr. Byrne had first done to show potential presenters how his idea might work: play a music track he liked along with the Dayton DVD. Their minds automatically made connections between sound and image, and he had to keep reminding them that he had added the music, that the routine wasn’t designed to go with it.

“It’s a testament to the amazingness of chance operations,” Mr. Giarmo said.

Even so, the teams have been working hard to adapt to the challenges. As in an exhibition skate on the ice that follows the awarding of medals, the absence of competition allows the color guards to concentrate more on art than on sport.

Ms. Garbus of Tune-Yards, who was in tears after seeing her team perform in Dayton, said that “Contemporary Color” offers the musicians opportunities, too. “How do we tap into pop culture without compromising our stuff?” she asked.

“Contemporary Color” poses risks beyond the usual color-guard concerns of flying objects or even the new one of live music. The bigger chance operation is what Mr. Byrne spoke of as the “collision,” the “bringing together of these worlds that would never meet in a million years.”

The sincerity of everyone involved is best heard in the music. Mr. Byrne has composed his song from what he imagines is the perspective of color guard kids.

“They are outliers in their school, but in color guard they find a home where they feel loved and can express themselves,” he said. “I know that feeling. I can connect to that world.”

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