Review by Ted Mills
For David Byrne, this was one of the last times he would write in the hyperobjective style that marked his work with Talking Heads up through Remain in Light and some of Speaking in Tongues. The occasion, the chance to write interludes -- or "knee plays" -- for a large scale Robert Wilson opera, The Civil Wars, called on this kind of approach, Wilson being as detached as Byrne. Musically, Byrne was strangely influenced by hearing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and created these brass-led marches that sound like an art school has landed on Bourbon Street, though in places it is also reminiscent of a sunnier patch of the territory staked out in The Catherine Wheel, his other dance score. In the mix, Byrne stirs in some traditional gospel tunes, arranged to match the iconoclastic style. Byrne's words, performed in his dry, ever-so-slightly amused style, are acutely observed and/or humorously naïve slices of American life -- anthropological tomfoolery. The wry aphorism-led "In the Future" ("In the future, water will be expensive"; "In the future, we will not have time for leisure activities") is the album highlight, and a perfect end to this experiment. [Nonesuch issued The Knee Plays on CD for the first time in 2007, adding eight bonus tracks to the original release.]
The Knee Plays
[ECM; 1985; r: Nonesuch; 2007]
The CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down was set to be experimental theatre director Robert Wilson's most massive achievement to date. Best known at the time for his 1976 five-hour operatic collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, Wilson was leading troupes from six countries in the production of CIVIL warS, a 12-hour avant-garde opera that would premiere at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Although Wilson lost funding before staging the full production, several smaller versions of the play were individually performed around the world. "The Knee Plays", the American contribution scored by David Byrne, premiered in Minneapolis in April 1984, and had its vinyl release on avant-jazz label ECM the next year.
"Knee Plays" is Wilson's own term, contrived to describe the connective vignettes that link the larger sections of a production, allowing for set and costume changes. Byrne signed on to produce the interstitials for CIVIL warS, and his subsequent performances have been comprised solely of the adjoining sections, which hold together rather well-- as well as one of Wilson's non-narratives can, at least. Nonesuch's current release of Knee Plays-- for the first time on CD-- adds eight previously unreleased tracks and a dense recollection of the pair's mind-meld by Byrne himself.
In many ways, a collaboration between Byrne and Wilson was perfect. Most obviously, Byrne's work with Twyla Tharp and Jonathan Demme on The Catherine Wheel and Stop Making Sense, respectively, indicated a keen interest in similar sorts of theatre, as well as the ability to pull off a collaboration with often wonderful results. The pair's stylistic and procedural similarities run deep as well: Both Byrne and Wilson had gained reknown by mastering the use of patient, tourettically clipped and repetitive phrases and gestures; they also shared a fascination with antisociality (at times, mental illness) and the mundane realities of everyday life. They even looked similar, in a tall, geekily dashing sort of way.
Originally envisioning a Japanese drum ensemble, Byrne instead opted for music more in the vein of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band-- a perfect fit for a play inspired by the Civil War and scored by Byrne, at this point seemingly fascinated by all art with strong cultural resonances. From the opening track, "Tree (Today Is an Important Occasion)" to the quintessentially Byrnian spoken-word closer "In the Future", the music is variously light, dramatic, authoritative, and empathetic. Byrne's ethnomusicological streak in full force, several sections of his score were adapted from traditional music: "In the Upper Room", "Social Studies (The Gift of Sound)", and "Things to Do (I've Tried)" are faithful gospel adaptations, and "Theadora Is Dozing" comes from the Bulgarian folk tradition.
Byrne, like Wilson, treats simple behaviors with the utmost delicacy and curiosity. In the essay included with the Nonesuch re-release, Byrne discusses his decision to accompany the music with narration (by himself, of course) as part of the Dadaist and Surrealist traditions: "None of these (text pieces) was directly related to Bob's 'story' and they were certainly unrelated to the stage action...to 'illustrate' things that are happening on stage with music or text is redundant." Anyone familiar with the liner notes to Stop Making Sense will recognize the narration over "Upper Room", for instance: "Being in the theater is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie." Similarly, "Things to Do" is a numbered to-do list ("Number 25. Putting houses next to bumpy things/ Number 26. Shaking things next to other things"), and both "Tree" and "Social Studies" approach everyday activities from the perspective of a stranger to Western culture. The most successful of these is the original closer "In the Future", on which Byrne shows off his knack at predicting technological and social trends, ending with "In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it." That statement seems applicable to most any historical era, but who's quibbling? He's right.
The most striking characteristic of The Knee Plays reflects the most overlooked quality shared by Byrne and Wilson. Both artists are deeply invested in appeals to their audiences' most basic human sympathies, yet their approaches are often misunderstood as cold by those who can't meet the work on its own terms. Extracted from its theatrical roots, Byrne's score holds up remarkably well, a testament to his unique vision at the time of its composition-- coming at the end of one of pop music's most fascinating creative streaks.
-Eric Harvey, December 06, 2007