In 1985, David Byrne recorded Music For The Knee Plays, which was used as an interlude in Robert Wilson’s epic drama The Civil Wars. The record consists of twelve pieces of varying length, performed by a brass ensemble, some of which are accompanied by monologues provided by Byrne. The music was written for a live performance, and has been recorded here from the stage. To my knowledge, a “studio” recording has never been made.

However, while they were intended to provide a sonic backdrop to Wilson’s choreography, Byrne also managed to weave an unrelated narrative into the music itself. The “story” of The Knee Plays is a series of short vignettes, observations and social commentaries, and the characters, such as they are, appear sporadically and unnamed. While much of this narrative fluctuates from first and third person, it never really deviates from its central stylistic formula. It cannot, in any meaningful sense, be described as lyricism. There is no specific pitch, change in volume, rhyme or expressiveness, and in fact it seems doubtful as to whether the monologue has any real basis in the music at all. It lacks the melody and verse/chorus structure that we have come to expect from pieces of this length (such as pop songs). However, the spoken element does seem to have some degree of rhythm. This is quite hard to detect, as it is often at odds or even syncopated against the beat of the music, giving the words a degree of hypnotism. The content, while non-linear, is clear and understandable. Byrne’s interest in the minutiae of everyday life prevails, and he talks, in great detail, about car journeys and domestic scenes. However, perhaps most interesting is his fascination with lists. Almost every monologue has a list of some kind, and some (I’ve Tried and In The Future) are nothing but. This, coupled with Byrne’s automaton-like delivery, makes for an interesting effect; it almost feels like you’re listening to your own thoughts. Byrne does nothing fancy, draws no literary allusions, uses no metaphors and makes no puns. Everything is taken at face value, and the subtlety is left to the music.

The music, in total contrast, is rich, vibrant and deep. Inspired by jazz, avant garde and New Orleans’ ragtime, Byrne uses his talent for layering music on his simplistic brass band riffs, and creates a texture which manages to be more soulful without displaying any kind of discernable emotion. This unusual paradox pervades the entire album. At times, Byrne has been accused of being alienated and detached. However, here he is certainly expressing something more than an intellectual concept. Perhaps it is the link to New Orleans’s ragtime (and its association with the funeral dirge) that gives it this depth. However, only one of the twelve tracks is remotely funereal. I can only surmise that Byrne feels more comfortable “speaking” through his music than he does in his monologues.

As a university student, Byrne studied the Bauhaus school of design, and this is never more clear in his work than in these compositions. The Bauhaus stresses the application of art to practical application. The functionalism of the discipline can be seen in the clear, defined musical forms that Byrne employs. There is no musical showmanship, but all the musicians play perfectly. To quote one of Bauhaus’ founding fathers, Johannes Itten, “The artist must first be a craftsman”. Byrne has created a durable work which relies not on gimmicks but, due to this theoretical basis, a thoughtful, methodical approach. Also important to Bauhaus sensibility is the inherent usefulness of the art for its audience. Many Bauhaus followers go into architecture, which they see as a happy medium between creative expression and a purpose fulfilled. However, I believe that Byrne has achieved the same using his own medium. Byrne’s goal was to create music that would supplement another’s art, but this property seems to apply to other things as well. The understated musicianship means that this can serve as both ambient background music and a piece that can take your full attention. As Byrne himself would later write of another work: “This piece, like a newspaper, a magazine, a home-cooked meal or a strand of DNA, can be opened and consumed beginning anywhere”. It makes excellent music for driving, exercising and even meditating (the auto-suggestion of the monologues can produce some very interesting results). This, coupled with its obvious original intent, to be an accompaniment to drama, means that Byrne has created “utility” music, in the same cast as pioneers such as Phillip Glass and Brian Eno (both of whom have had a profound effect on Byrne‘s artistic direction). In doing so, Byrne has successfully managed to compromise neither his artistic integrity or the Bauhaus vision.

While this music can most certainly be cast in the avant-garde genre, it seems to overcome many of the difficulties that this kind of music faces. Avant-garde can often be so experimental, as with the works of the French composer Erik Satie, that it can suffer through being either tedious through lack of dynamism or jarring through lack of melody. However, while The Knee Plays certainly breaks new ground, it conforms to some fundamental musical sensibilities, such as consistent rhythm, triad chords and largely major notes. All the instruments in the ensemble are harmonious and tuned together (rarer than one might imagine in avant-garde), which means that one doesn’t have to be intellectually interested in it to enjoy it. Surprisingly, the music is even good to dance to (an avenue of research I won’t discuss in too much detail here). As the album progresses, you can feel Byrne’s confidence grow, and he relaxes. Thus, the music becomes more jazzy and whimsical. Byrne even allows odd traces of humour and irony to enter his monologue and what may have been quite a serious, perhaps even morbid piece, becomes zesty and fun. It is on the final track, In The Future, where he truly shines. The monologue simply consists of statements preceded by the phrase, “In the future”, but Byrne’s wit makes the formula a winning one. Such insights as “water will be expensive” and “there will be many wars, going on everywhere” seem even more apt today.

Of course, like any creative work, Music For The Knee Plays is not without its flaws. One of the tracks on side two, Winter, suffers from some of the problems with dynamics outlined in the previous paragraph. It lacks the urgency and wit that defines the record, and seems oddly out of place. However, despite this one dip in quality, the album maintains a high standard throughout, and the nature of the compositions renders them timeless. Despite it being almost two decades old, this collection could well have been written yesterday, or indeed fifty years ago. It is a credit to Byrne‘s creativity that this work exists not within any particular movement, and stands apart.

Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion)
In The Upper Room
The Sound of business
Social Studies (The Gift Of Sound)
Where The Sun Never Goes Down
Theadora Is Dozing
Admiral Perry
I Bid You Goodnight
I've Tried (Things to Do)
Winter
Jungle Book
In The Future

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