In Practice: David Byrne And St. Vincent
When I first heard that David Byrne and St. Vincent's Annie Clark would collaborate, I imagined a quirky, guitar-based dance band. I never expected an eight-piece brass ensemble or a theremin duet. What's brilliant about their album together, Love This Giant, is what makes collaboration exciting: the desire to explore and challenge. We find both artists outside their comfort zones, making music that couldn't have happened independently of each other. It's unlike anything out there today.
Byrne and Clark are taking the album out on tour, too. Last month, we went to the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, N.J., on the final day of rehearsals to get a glimpse into the nature of this joint effort. We saw two visionary artists, one just about twice the age of the other, making music one calculated step at a time. It's a big project, with those eight horn players in constant, choreographed motion as they play songs from the new album, music from Byrne's thrilling catalog (including a stunning version of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House") and St. Vincent songs such as "Cruel." They also worked with choreographer Annie-B Parson, who suggested eccentric dance moves for Byrne, Clark and the eight horn players. In these rehearsals, I could see the alchemy for a perfect two hours of quirk and delight.
Watching a rehearsal is a bit like watching a magician rehearse a trick: You risk losing some of the enchantment, but gain insight into the process. It's a literal peek behind the curtain at two artists who generally maintain a mysterious veneer and a cool distance between personality and work — and each other. That was the part I found so interesting. Love This Giant is a true collaboration, a back-and-forth exchange of words and music, yet throughout the rehearsals and the show, there was little obvious eye contact between the duo. The staging — and the music itself — comes off as a work of two artists in parallel, not an amalgam. Sometimes that's a bit of a letdown, but it makes moments when they do come together, like their fiery theremin duet, so thrilling.
As this giant work moves from rehearsal space to stages across the country and beyond, those calculated moves — from taped marks on the floor to mental notes in the head — melt away. I saw that happening at their recent show at Strathmore Hall in Maryland. (We'll have some video from that show for you soon.) What Annie Clark says in this video is so true: "Magic takes planning." You're about to see the plan.
Producers: Mito Habe-Evans, Bob Boilen; Videographers: Mito Habe-Evans, A.J. Wilhelm; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Supervising producer: Jessica Goldstein; Special thanks to: Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, N.J.; Executive producers: Anya Grundmann, Keith Jenkins