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Thursday, May 14, 2015

David Byrne Raises Flags

Art Direction & Design by Doyle Partners; photo by Julieta Cervantes
By Jane Jansen Seymour

David Byrne fans know to expect the unexpected. Over the years, this former frontman of the seminal rock band Talking Heads has enjoyed an extensive solo career, indulging in his passion for world music, brass orchestras, and countless collaborations with artists of all genres. He has not shied from expressing his artistic vision on film (beginning with True Stories) along with soundtracks, including Grammy-winning music for the movie The Last Emperor. He has also branched into writing, most recently about his love of bicycling (Bicycle Diaries) in print, plus an interactive e-book explaining his view of How Music Works.

Crisscrossing creative outlets, Byrne has turned spaces into instruments (Playing the Building, an installation at New York’s Battery Maritime Museum) and incorporated dance movement in his last world tour supporting the album of songs written with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. His concept album with Fat Boy Slim chronicling the life of Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, evolved into an award-winning theatrical production. Byrne’s recent ties with BAM include performing in a tribute to William Onyeabor, and designing witty alphabet-based bike racks for BAM.

Byrne’s latest endeavor requires an arena to fit the explosive energy of color guard teams plus live music as Contemporary Color takes over Barclays Center June 27 and 28, co-presented by BAM and Barclays Center. He was introduced to the visual spectacle of this “sport of the arts” when a high school asked to use his music from The Forest, a theater work by director Robert Wilson at BAM in 1988. Byrne was transfixed by footage showing the World Wide Championship competition, saying he was amazed and delighted to find himself in a new world he didn’t know existed. The spectacle included massive groups flipping flags, spinning sabres, and syncing steps in sequin-studded costumes, all set to piped-in sound. Byrne began to wonder—what if these performances had stellar live music? It would be fun for the musicians, too.

David Byrne in ATOMIC BOMB!: The Music of William Onyeabor at BAM in 2014. Photo: Mike Benigno

Contemporary Color—which Time Out New York says “might be in the coolest event of the season”—pairs 10 elite color guard teams from North America with musical artists backed by an all-star band to provide a live original soundtrack. Byrne told The New York Times how he chose the participants with a “certain bigness” to their sound, in order to match the passion of the teams. Although most were unfamiliar with the sport, a varied list of enthusiastic musicians joined the quest. Beyond the two dates in Brooklyn, Contemporary Color is part of the Luminato Festival (a project co-commissioner) on June 22 and 23 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

For this event, Byrne taps the talented multi-instrumentalist St. Vincent, his collaborator for the album Love This Giant and a Grammy winner for her own self-titled album. Singer-songwriter Tom Krell is the mastermind behind contemporary experimental pop group How To Dress Well. And Merrill Garbus, who has been performing as tUnE-yArDs since 2009, brings her worldview in a quirky, angular sound, after travel to Haiti offered the motivation for her latest album Nikki Nack.

Producer, songwriter, and NYC-based British artist Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange on two albums) appears on the lineup along with the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius, whose power vocals were heard recently onstage at BAM with the band Tweedy. Canadian pop star Nelly Furtado, best known for her hit “I’m Like a Bird,” adds her signature vocal style to the stage. Prolific genre-spanning composer Nico Muhly (his collaboration with Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, Planetarium, was presented in 2013 at BAM, where he has performed numerous times) is planning to partner with Ira Glass, the host of the popular broadcast This American Life. And Beastie Boy Ad-Rock reunites with longtime musical collaborator Money Mark for the performance, adding their NYC swagger to the proceedings.

About the performance, Byrne admits, “We’re all slightly out of our comfort zone, but very excited.” He even concedes how it’s “sort of a crazy idea.” That’s coming from the source—another impulse turned to action from the mind of David Byrne.

Contemporary Color takes over Barclays Center June 27 & 28. Tickets are still available.

Jane Jansen Seymour is a music writer for New Music Matters.

Reprinted from May 2015 BAMbill.

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