David Byrne: The Knee Plays

Tal Rosenberg

Nonesuch reissues famous score by David Byrne, featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and written for a section of Robert Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (not really) the CIVIL WarS.

David Byrne

The Knee Plays

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2007-11-06
UK Release Date: 2007-11-12

As a diehard Talking Heads fan, I was somewhat befuddled to learn that David Byrne had created something in the ‘80s that I was unaware of; but alas, ‘tis true. Turns out that the renowned director and playwright Robert Wilson was commissioned in the early part of that decade to create a piece for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The work, entitled The CIVIL WarS, envisioned a day of musical theatre, scored by some of the most famous avant-garde/experimental composers and musicians of the day, such as Phillip Glass, Gavin Bryars, and the aforementioned Byrne. Due to lack of funding, the whole performance never materialized, and instead four of a planned six parts were shown in different locations all over the world. It even won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Sort of.

So why didn’t I know about it? For one, though The CIVIL WarS was selected by the jury for the Pulitzer, the supervisory board outright rejected Wilson’s winning it, and no award was given. As for the album, The Knee Plays, though available on vinyl, had never been made available on CD, my technological medium of choice (and habit, really).

Which brings us to this reissue of Byrne’s -- or the American/Minneapolis -- installment. The idea was to present dancers in white doctors’ scrubs through the format of Japanese Bunraku puppetry and Kabuki theater. But while the aesthetic was directly influenced by Japan (and the “kabuki” scores are included here as bonus tracks), Byrne was preoccupied with the New Orleans ensemble the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and hired them to perform the score, divided into twelve parts and connecting the larger works (the “knees” conjoining the “meat” (Wilson’s idea)). On some of the tracks, Byrne performs spoken word over the arrangements.

Reading up on the description, the prospect of hearing the album was exciting, but the initial encounter was paralyzing. Many of the segments are sans percussion, and the ones that employ it have a metronomic rhythm. The horns, meanwhile, aren’t really punchy, more like they’re asleep and every so often someone splashes them with a glass of water to temporarily revive them. Less plays, the twelve compositions are more like outlines, with rigorously designed charts containing set routes and destinations.

And so The Knee Plays -- which I was expecting to be as jumpy, contorted, and frenetic as the Talking Heads, or at the very least as exotic and humid as The Catherine Wheel, Byrne’s collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp -- became something else entirely. I would play it during calming-yet-tedious activities: cleaning my room, washing dishes, smoking cigarettes idly. At first, it struck me as semi-brilliant, particularly because my initial encounter occurred when I was unemployed and coming to a number of critical decisions as to what I wanted to do with my life and how I was going to do it. The repeating horns, sweltering saxes, and bullfrog trombones were soothing, and would every so often provide the notepad for sporadic nuggets of criticism and jokes from Byrne.

The first track has a girl nitpicking her wardrobe and getting prepared for the day over rising and falling horns, as if the most mundane activities have the most profound meanings. “Social Studies” made me think about the fact that history is really about girls and groceries, and I chuckled until I realized that it might be true. Next song “(The Gift of Sound) Where the Sun Never Goes Down” has a line, “Being in the theater is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie”, which I thought was only half-true, but I spent enormous amounts of time pondering the thought. It made realize, in the confines of Byrne and Wilson’s structuralism, that life is essentially predictable; that our paths, while not prearranged or constricted to fate, follow the deadbeat rhythms of perfunctory habits.

But then something happened: I took Byrne’s advice and “Found a Job”. Work wasn’t as monotonous as I thought it would be. Unexpected roads began opening up before me and my days began to change. So I went back and listened to The Knee Plays again. It ceased to be revelatory and, when placed in a context that didn’t include mindless chores, was horribly tedious for its nearly hour-and-a-half length. And that’s when I realized that life is totally unpredictable, that even when you’re going into a job or taking the same route to work every day or always eating the same meal, something unexpected is always going to come along and change that. Byrne’s work with Talking Heads, with Eno, even some of his solo work, has this basic understanding. The Knee Plays would rather do away with it altogether. And that’s no fun at all.


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