David Byrne was standing in a Toronto gymnasium, trying to roll a sabre over his hand. "We're all going to have to learn how to do this," he said, jokingly, as the heavy blade clattered to the floor. Sabres and wooden rifles are two of the standard props used by the former Talking Heads singer's latest collaborators: a group of teens from Longueuil, Que., who will perform a synchronized colour guard routine to his music.
Colour guard is a competitive made-in-America phenomenon that combines moves adapted from parade-ground drills with athletic dance steps and a type of flag tossing that originated in Switzerland. It's a well-developed subculture in the United States, where it's often seen during halftime shows at college and high school football games. A big dollop of colour guard is coming to the Air Canada Centre on June 22 and 23 during Luminato Festival, as 10 teams perform with new live music by Byrne, Nelly Furtado, Nico Muhly and seven other pop composers.
Byrne was unaware of colour guard – and its indoor form, winter guard – until a team asked for permission to excerpt some of his music in a routine. He let them have it without charge, provided they send him a DVD of the results. What he saw "opened a door into a world I didn't know existed," he says.
"It's kind of an irony-free zone," he said. "The prevailing sensibility in a lot of colour guard is very passionate, maybe a little romantic or sentimental. It's about largeness of feeling, and being a little bit of an outsider, and finding a safe haven and shelter.
"Their hearts are open and just pouring out. They're so emotionally wrapped up in it, and a lot of them are just heaving with tears at the end of a performance. In my world, you would not be able to do that," he said, laughing loudly. "That would just not be done."
That seemed a perfect reason, he thought, to engineer a controlled collision of their world with his. He persuaded Luminato and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to commission the music, and assembled a film crew to document the project from beginning to end.
"Colour guard is a unique American folk tradition, and David has always been interested in things like that," says Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent and got involved with Byrne's project while touring with him for an album they made together. "It deserves to be seen and explored."
Byrne initially suggested that the teams produce routines based on the new commissioned music, which they could use throughout the competitive season that ends each April with world championships in Dayton, Ohio. The teams were thrilled by the offer – but refused.
"They were excited about it, but the idea of doing something that far out of the ordinary for their championship thing scared the shit out of them," he said. "It was just too risky."
Music for colour guard is always recorded, he says, and usually made from a bunch of sources chopped and spliced to suit whatever concept the team has chosen. As in figure skating, the sounds are completely expedient and changeable – unlike a song sailing in from the studio of David Byrne.
They agreed to reverse the creative sequence: have 10 teams construct their routines as usual, with montages of stuff on tape, for their competitive season, then let Byrne and his peers write new pieces to fit those movements. In movie parlance, the montages would become temp tracks for the musicians to replace with their own songs.
It sounds simple, but colour guard is a precisely co-ordinated activity, and a typical tape montage can change tempo and character several times during a six-minute routine. Clark found herself writing something "like 1970s episodic rock" to match what she saw on her team's video.
"It was much like scoring a silent film," said Merrill Garbus, who performs as tUnE-yArDs and is known for a percussive, beat-oriented kind of music. Colour guard music, by contrast, "is often very lyrical." That was an advantage, she said in a phone interview, because the music didn't have to match the movement beat for beat.
"It's not like marching band," said Byrne. "The movement isn't strongly rhythmic, which gives us some leeway. They have markers, moments where a big rifle toss or synchronized flag movement happens. All those things fall in good places in my music, which otherwise isn't always in the same tempo as the movement."
Byrne's Les Eclipses crew have devised a fairly abstract routine, he says, but others are strongly thematic. Garbus's team did a piece about relationships between people and machines, and another team chose the theme "lunatic" – described by Byrne as "a perfect fit" for Clark.
Garbus said she was more stimulated than inhibited by the restrictions of her assignment, and that it would probably have been harder to write something for a guard team with no movements to work from. She also said it was liberating to do something that didn't have to fit into one of her own recordings or shows.
"It stretched my definition of what my music can sound like, which was really wonderful," she said. "There are a lot of important ideas I uncovered here. I'm excited to have these as raw materials. I could absolutely see this turning into another thing."
Above all, she loved the full-on commitment shown by her colour guard team. "I really got swept up in the whole thing," she said. "I was very moved by the intensity of the performers."