Jesse Jarnow

“social studies” – david byrne & screamers

“Social Studies” – David Byrne (download here)
from Music for the Knee Plays (1985)
released by ECM (never released on CD)

(file expires February 12th)

I saw David Byrne revive his music from The Knee Plays at Zankel Hall on Thursday evening. As usually happens when a rock dude performs at a traditionally classical venue, a screamer or two came with. “Make some noise,” came the voice from the balcony, early in the show. Or maybe it was “bring the noise.” Either way, being a night of brass band charts derived from New Orleans music, gospel, and Bulgarian folk (mixed, of course, with Byrne’s wry spoken word), it wasn’t happening. How obnoxious, I thought/sighed/judged.

Later, though, after Byrne asked for the audience to “cut us some slack,” the voice returned: “we cut you some slack!” It was a nice little moment, and Byrne cracked a smile. It occurred me that, so long as the screamers weren’t screaming during the music, why should it matter? Not only that, but it seemed to add to the performance, zapping a tiny tinge of electricity into what felt like an otherwise staid routine: a concert hall, ushers, a program listing the songs to be performed, etc..

Byrne’s series at Carnegie Hall was subtitled “No Boundaries,” but — given the mechanism of Carnegie Hall itself — that obviously wasn’t literally true. There might be surprising music, yes, but it would all occur at a certain place, in a certain time, in a certain manner, and the audience was expected to behave as such. I liked the shout. As for the music, The Knee Plays is far from my favorite extracurricular DB project, though there are a few great True Stories-like observations, including the above-uploaded “Social Studies.”

1 Comment

  1. kevin r hollo says: - reply

    yes yes
    i was at a thee silver mount zion show at the wexner center here in columbus a few months back, and there was a screamer. not too terribly persistent, but the quietude and intimacy (as i’m sure you dealt with at the byrne show), people sitting on the floor up above in a balcony, people huddled very close to the knee-high stage, it all leant the screamer an air of mystery, espionage, performance. i couldnt agree more. it was not so much audience literacy (how do we know how to act and read the music or performer, see clapping during stash ;) as it was an INTERRUPTION. a complicated interruption, but one that seems necessary to break down the barriers between performance (i’m playing a song) and performance (i’m standing up here about to play a song). i also love that most screamers maintain an air of secrecy, we never really know who it is/was, even when it’s continual or repetitive. i dont think we want to know. that cloaked power of interruption is a good ting, isnt it?