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Can David Byrne's Works Join the Classical Music Repertoire?

David Byrne

Photo by Catalina KulczarDavid Byrne

The world is a very different place since Talking Heads emerged from New York's downtown, CBGB's/Max's Kansas City music scene of the late '70s. Today it's difficult to imagine a time when the stripped-down, postpunk eclecticism of the band or the art-rock eccentricities of its former frontman-guitarist-songwriter David Byrne seemed radical or its influence anything other than ubiquitous.

Harder still is to imagine Byrne being invited through the gates that keep pop music separate from the rarefied repertoire of the classical concert hall. Especially for Byrne himself.

Yet if Patrick Scott, artistic director of Santa Monica's long-running avant-garde concert series Jacaranda has his way, Byrne soon will be joining the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin in what is euphemistically called the classical music world's "standard repertoire."
 

"We're dedicated to shaping the work that becomes the standard repertoire of the future, in the 21st century," Scott says. "So we're identifying works that we think have enough quality and interest and performance history to become common, standard performance."

First, Scott is trying to anoint Byrne's 1984 composition Knee Plays, originally written for avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson's famously unrealized, 12-hour, six-part CIVIL warS, intended for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. On April 5 at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, Knee Plays will be performed in a double bill entitled Civil Wars, along with the score from Paul Schrader's 1985 film Mishima, written by Philip Glass (a frequent Wilson collaborator).

The program is part of the L.A. Phil's Minimalist Jukebox Festival, which will include part of Glass' CIVIL warS composition (the "Rome Section") on April 17 and 19.

The real significance of performing Byrne's Knee Plays, Scott notes, is that, apart from a Byrne performance in 2007 at New York's Zankel Hall, the score has not been performed by anyone but Byrne since he toured it internationally from 1985 to 1988.

Jacaranda in performance

Photo courtesy of JacarandaJacaranda in performance

Knee Plays and an earlier, 1981 collaboration with Twyla Tharp on the ballet The Catherine Wheel marked Byrne's first crossovers from the concert stage to the stage of narrative - a move that recently culminated in Here Lies Love, last year's Byrne-penned hit "poperetta" that reconceives the life of Imelda Marcos as a disco.

In an email exchange from New York's Public Theater, where Here Lies Love is rehearsing for its May 1 reopening ("an idea that wouldn't die," Byrne calls it), the composer says that what attracts him to theater is how "the music in both cases had very specific functions to perform. I liked that - having restrictions and tasks to accomplish."

Knee Plays whetted his appetite to write more ambitiously in terms of combining music and dramatic narrative, which led to the 1988 Byrne-Wilson Epic of Gilgamesh riff called The Forest. "You don't get much in the way of narrative with Bob," Byrne notes wryly, "or at least you didn't in those days - but oddly both of those pieces had narrative underpinnings. Both The Knee Plays and The Forest had 'stories' that inspired the scenes and music - not that one can figure out the stories from the music."

Byrne recalls that, at the time, commissions like Knee Plays allowed him to stretch his wings musically. "I was increasingly interested in all sorts of other music that I was hearing," he says, "and these projects (some soundtracks too) allowed me to follow those interests and passions." In Knee Plays, he continues, those interests can be heard in "bits of Nino Rota, gospel, funk, ambient and even a little bit of Bulgarian harmonies."

While Byrne says that some of the musical concerns that emerged from Knee Plays continue to turn up in his work - specifically his 2009 collaboration with Annie "St. Vincent" Clark that produced the album Love This Giant  - he says he never dreamed that Knee Plays would ever find its way onto the contemporary classical landscape.

Civil Wars, which includes David Byrne's Knee Plays and Philip Glass' Mishima, will be performed by Jacaranda on April 5 at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. More info at jacarandamusic.org.


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