David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant

Sep 8

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Swarmarama

Our 12-piece band (including Annie Clark and I) have mastered the songs we’ll play on tour. There will be some new songs, some old, some that will be very familiar, and some that are not-so-well known. We’re relieved and excited.

Annie-B Parson, of Big Dance Theater, joined us at rehearsal the other day to help coordinate aspects of our movement. One could call it choreography, but that may bring to mind jazz hands, Lady Gaga dancers and Janet Jackson videos—and this is not that.

Yesterday (Sept. 7), we worked on movement for “The Forest Awakes”, a song on the Love This Giant album, and it turned out to be spectacular. A couple of years ago, I remarked how an exercise that choreographer Noemie LaFrance did for our auditions could be viewed as a model of emergent structure—from a few simple rules, order emerged out of chaos. Well, Annie-B used a similar exercise to devise the movement for “The Forest Awakes.

The rule for this exercise was to align oneself with someone, stay there for a bit, then move onto another alignment. Alignment, in this sense, means standing alongside, behind, or even diagonal to someone else. Being musicians, we tend to move from our aligned positions every measure or two, so there are periods of stasis in between the realigning.

What was amazing was that, twice in the course of the song, we all found ourselves in a perfect line, side-by-side, all facing downstage—order emerged out of seeming chaos. Then, the line dissolved and various smaller alignments emerged here and there. Once again, a single line emerged, totally by accident, near the end of the song. We were all taken aback. It was, well, magical.

Swarm behavior is an area of serious study and one of the most famous examples is the formation flying of starlings.

Swarm Behavior
(Image Source)

They make these amazing, undulating shapes in the air that twist and stretch and seem to be the work of some incredible artistic intelligence. The amazing part is that they have no leader to create these formations but simply follow a few simple rules.

What we did at rehearsal was similar. It looked like an incredibly sophisticated piece of choreography, something we might have struggled to learn over a very long period, but it was actually just us obeying simple directives.  This post is a bit of a betrayal—it would be nice, of course, if audiences thought we were so slick that we worked out every movement step-by-step (which we actually have done for other songs).

It’s a beautiful musical-visual metaphor. For example, it models how the relatively small number of genes that we possess as humans can “direct” our mind-numbingly complicated behavior, bodies, and minds. Seeing this happen in a dance, while playing and singing our music, is, well, a pretty ecstatic feeling. It taps into something we all sense in some deep way—we’re enacting a musical version of one the parts of the (cheese alert!) dance of life. It’s one of the unexpected perks of doing what we do. And it couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate song.

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