A primer on David Byrne's color guard obsession
David Byrne’s Contemporary Color project is, at the surface, pretty out there. He and several musician friends — including St. Vincent, Devonté Hynes aka Blood Orange, and Nelly Furtado — worked with 10 color guard teams from the U.S. and Canada to produce a live music and arts show, which debuted on Tuesday.
Sure, Byrne is a weird music icon: His band the Talking Heads was one of the leaders of new wave rock in the ’80s, and he’s continued producing innovative, music projects since. But how did he get involved with the high school tradition of color guard? In fact, what even is color guard?!
If you’ve ever watched a marching band performance, either in the context of a football game or a dedicated competition (you know who you are), those people waving flags and performing routines alongside the people playing instruments? That’s the color guard.
The official/first Google definition is “a uniformed group, especially of soldiers, police officers, or school representatives, who parade or present their institution’s flag (and sometimes their national flag) on ceremonial occasions,” but the costumed, band version of color guard is the one most common. (Also, I was in marching band for years, so that’s my first frame of reference.) It’s gorgeous and highly-choreographed, a true sight to behold. However, just like marching band can be divorced from football, guard can too be divorced from marching band, and is its own unique art form.
Color guard is, however, inextricably linked to music, and in 2008, one guard group approached Byrne about using his music. Ever curious, he assented, and after watching the performance, became a convert to the art. Elaborate, often sequined or glittered uniforms; sequenced motion; unwieldy props — color guard has much in common with rock music uniforms. Thus, Byrne came up with the idea of combining the two forms: Original, live rock music scores with original color guard choreography. Enter, his project Contemporary Color.
Just this week, against all-new, live music collaborations from St. Vincent, who’s worked with Byrne before, Dev Hynes, How to Dress Well, Nelly Furtado, Zola Jesus, Lucius, Money Mark and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, Nico Muhley and your public radio crush Ira Glass, and tUnE-yArDs, 10 U.S.-Canada color teams performed at the inaugural Contemporary Color show, which was part of the Luminato arts festival.
The results, strewn across social media, are breathtaking.
There’s this video of Quebecois color guard group Les Eclipses performing alongside Byrne . . .
. . . Zola Jesus crooning against the Syracuse, NY-based group Brigadeers . . .
. . . St. Vincent with Westchester, PA-based group Field of View . . .
. . . and Ontario’s Ventures Winter Guard performing to Nelly Furtado and Hynes.
You can read a breathless, in-depth Rolling Stone review here. Or, if you’re around NYC, catch the show live on June 27 and 28. Contemporary Color sounds and looks like nothing else — if they ever plan on expanding, we’ll be in the front row.