Rock and Roll and Rifles: David Byrne's Contemporary Color

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Contemporary Color, the latest project from David Byrne (lead singer of Talking Heads, indie rock star, all-around art world impresario) brings together live music by the likes of St. Vincent and Zola Jesus with color guard teams, whose synchronized dancing and flag-twirling usually accompanies football marching bands. When we heard that musician, arranger, and winner of our 1914 Blues Extra Credit challenge Kelly Pratt was involved in putting the show together, we asked him to tell us what it looked like behind the scenes. Here's his dispatch.

When most people think of color guard (do most people think of color guard?), they picture gun-toting, flag-waving high schoolers backing up the marching band at a football game. What many don't realize is that after the footballs are deflated these kids make their way indoors to the basketball court for a fiercely competitive venture known as "winter guard". Often artier than its marching band counterpart, the winter guard performs themed primarily dance-based routines to pre-recorded music. 

Every year the best winter guard teams convene in Dayton for the world championships. Upon hearing of this competition, David Byrne traveled to Dayton and there was bitten by the winter guard bug. Three years (and an ungodly amount of planning) later he and his team have assembled a gargantuan group of artists, musicians, techs, volunteers, and most importantly, 10 of the best color guard teams in North America to create a multi-media project called Contemporary Color. These color guards are performing their pre-existing routines to music specifically written for them by some of the most successful recording artists in the industry including St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, tUnE-yArDs, Devonté Hynes, Nico Muhly and Ira Glass, Ad Rock and Money Mark, How To Dress Well, Lucius, Zola Jesus, and Mr. Byrne himself.

@contemporarycolor Finale I helped write. Featuring the honking of @stuartbogie

A video posted by Kelly Pratt (@sirkellypratt) on


In true David Byrne fashion it has to be seen to believed. I had the great pleasure of working with David and St. Vincent on their collaborative album, Love This Giant, and their 2012-2013 tour, serving as arranger, musical director, and brass/woodwind player. I didn't think there could be more of a spectacle than eight horn players performing complex choreography to even more complex music written by two of the most original living musical voices. Yet Contemporary Color has upped the ante. From the brooding How to Dress Well/Mechanicsburg piece about child abduction to the bonkers tUnE-yArDs/Emanon collaboration that sounds like the summer hit of 2093, every artist has delivered a completely unique sounding piece that fits their respectful team perfectly. As arranger for the project I've been responsible for fleshing out the songs with brass, woodwinds, and a string section. The biggest challenge has been to make the songs fuller without losing the original spirit of the demo, or confusing the color guards and their routine. Now that we have two shows under our belt we're hauling the crew from Toronto down to Brooklyn for two nights at the Barclay's center this weekend. After which we will all disperse and David Byrne will go back to whatever huge, visionary project he has on his plate next.

My 3 microphones, flute, and @st_vincent

A photo posted by Kelly Pratt (@sirkellypratt) on

Nelly Furtado and @tuneyards

A photo posted by Kelly Pratt (@sirkellypratt) on


A photo posted by Kelly Pratt (@sirkellypratt) on


A photo posted by Kelly Pratt (@sirkellypratt) on

Kelly Pratt writes music for film and has arranged and recorded horns, woodwinds, and vocals for Arcade Fire, Beirut, Passion Pit, Coldplay, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and many others. In 2012-2013 he was musical director for the David Byrne & St. Vincent “Love this Giant” world tour. He has a band called Bright Moments.