1985 - Music for the Knee Plays Print
Sunday, 03 August 2008 13:32

Knee PlaysIn spring 1985, David Byrne released `Music For The Knee Plays`, a series of musical vignettes designed as 'joints' between longer scenes in a projected theatrical epic by Robert Wilson entitled The CIVIL WarS.

The use of such "knee plays" was not original to this work - for they had been a feature of the 1976 opera by Wilson and Philip Glass 'Einstein on the Beach'. Glass described them there as being 'short connecting pieces which appear throughout the work much as prelude, interludes and post-ludes. Taken together they form a play in themselves.'
It was natural for Byrne to link up with Wilson, whose theatrical vision began in the visual arts and relied on observational, conceptual themes. The notes to the Japanese version of the LP provide (in translation) something of the background : "At first, Robert Wilson asked David to compose pieces for several sections of The CIVIL warS, but on account of David's limited time, he composed only The Knee Plays part. The CIVIL warS was supposed to be played in its complete form at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but if one plays every part, it takes at least eight hours. There was also a financial problem for playing every part. So only some parts of it were staged there. David himself was very interested in composing for such a play and dance and this time again he enjoyed this work very much. Last time, for The Catherine Wheel, he used recorded tape, but this time he made musicians play on the stage."
"The Knee Plays" was released on cassette and vinyl - an expanded CD plus bonus DVD was released in 2007.

Order The Knee Plays CD + DVD

Adelle, David, Robert

Adelle Lutz, Robert Wilson and David Byrne during a workshop in Tokyo, April 1983
  • 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
The Knee Plays music - for a brass ensemble, interwoven with occasional spoken narrative - was quite a departure for Byrne, and the result was suggestive of early New Orleans funeral dirges. This connection is acknowledged on the LP sleeve : 'This music was inspired by the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band of New Orleans.' Although not present on the album cover, the record label provides the following information/credits :
2. In the Upper Room : Traditional, arranged by The Baptist Methodist Choir Church of God
5. The Gift of Sound : Traditional, arranged by Clara Hudman, "The Georgia Peach"
6. Theadora is Dozing : Traditional, arranged by Ensemble of The Bulgarian Republic
8. I Bid you Goodnight : Traditional, arranged by The Pindar Family
9. I've Tried : Traditional, arranged by Swan's Silvertone Singers

It was the first music Byrne had actually 'composed' for performance, played out on an emulator rather than transcribed into musical notation, as Byrne does not read music. The narrative sections, recited by David with deadpan intonation, are droll. After Stop Making Sense, Byrne said he sensed that people were picking up on his wit better than before :'They can see that I'm not always completely serious or not always completely demented'.

The album was released as an LP and cassette, on ECM in America and EMI Zonophone elsewhere. The music was first produced and performed at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 26, 27, 28 April 1984 - and subsequently, as noted above, in Los Angeles. It was also performed twice during a benefit concert at The Cambridge Theatre in London, 2 July 1988, with Les Miserables Brass Band - an occasion recorded by BBC-TV.

This London performance included material not present on the LP - most notably words to Knee Plays 6 and 8 - both of which appeared on the LP as instrumentals only. While the words to I bid you Goodnight (Knee Play 8) are well known, those to Theadora is Dozing (Knee Play 6) are new, as is the title added to the piece - Song of a Sea Shore. Taken from the concert programme these words are as follows :


Big waves, and when they make a big splash into the water
Then they believe that the weather will be good for a few days
That's how the song goes
Been windy for a couple of days, and they hear the big splashes
They even have different splashes in the different sound and they know the weather will be nice
When it's really windy you can hear the waves, but they don't make sense
When the wind dies down you can hear the waves more
Song of a Name
This song was a song for a boy trying to make the boy like his name
Song About A Thumb
The person was making fun of another one's thumb
Look Where Somebody Slept
People From Different Places Singing
This one is about the different people in different small settlements, families of ten or six families
When the people came from different places and finally got together they used to play some game and also do some throat singing, all the settlements
A family would come from another settlement
They would throat sing with this woman
They used to know how to throat sing too
Sometimes they would know their different own ways of singing.
This text is stated in the concert programme to be 'From : Inuit Throat & Harp Songs. Canadian Music Heritage Collection. MH011' which, added to the music, as we have seen, inspired by the Ensemble of The Bulgarian Republic, shows how wide-ranging Byrne had been in his search for sources. In the London concert only the last half of the text (starting at Song of a Name) was used.
The concert programme also provides texts for Knee Plays 1, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12. These are substantially in agreement with those published in the lyrics section, with the exception of those for Knee Play 12, which are reproduced below. From these, which would seem to be an earlier draft to those used on the LP, we gain something of a glimpse of a work in progress.


In the future everyone will have the same haircut and the same clothes
In the future everyone will be very fat from the starchy diet
In the future everyone will be very thin from not having enough to eat
In the future it will be next to impossible to tell girls from boys, even in bed
In the future men will be 'super-masculine' and women will be 'ultra-feminine'
In the future atomic fusion will enable us to build a skyscraper with
the energy obtained from a grain of salt
In the future through genetic surgery there will be a race of menial
workers, studs, 'whores', TV personalities and politicians
In the future half of us will be 'mentally ill'
In the future there will be no religion or spiritualism of any sort
In the future the 'psychic arts' will be put to practical use
In the future we will not think that nature is beautiful
In the future the weather will always be the same (relative to the way it is now)
In the future no one will fight with anyone else because anyone can
be anything he or she want to be
In the future there will be an atomic war that will reduce the survivors to savages
In the future water will be expensive
In the future all material items will be free
In the future everyone's house will be like a little fortress
In the future everyone will think about love all the time
In the future TV will be so good that the printed word will function as an artform only
In the future people with boring jobs will take pills to relieve boredom
In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very happy
In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very filthy
In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very wealthy
In the future communication/distribution systems will be so good that no
one will live in cities
In the future farming will be managed through a nationwide computer hookup
In the future there will be mini-wars going on everywhere
In the future political and other decisions will be based completely on opinion polls
In the future only the very wealthy will be able to travel or move out their houses
In the future individuals with soldier inclinations will go out for 'killer' sports
In the future there will be machines which will produce a religious
experience in the user
In the future there will be a classless society, no one richer than anyone else
In the future people will constantly be having plastic surgery, altering
their features many times during a lifetime
In the future there will be many mass suicides
In the future there will be groups of wild people, living in the wilderness,
who will rob suburbanites
In the future there will be only paper money which will be personalized
In the future everyone will only get to go home once a year
In the future everyone will stay home all the time
In the future we will not have time for leisure activities
In the future we will only 'work' one day a week
In the future our bodies will be shrivelled up but healthy and our brains will be bigger
In the future there will be starving people everywhere
In the future no one will be able to afford TV or newspapers, resulting in
no one knowing what's going on
In the future people will live in space
In the future only the very wealthy will have pets
In the future the poor will be regulated by the rich
In the future the crippled, retarded, and helpless will be killed
In the future everyone's house will be a total entertainment centre, with
video, pills, dancing, sex tools, holographic movies, and game machines
In the future everyone will have his or hers own individual style of very way-out clothes
In the future we will all eat our favorite foods, only they will all be synthetic
In the future we will fuck anything, anytime, anywhere
In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it