The 1980s were a time of populist aspirations for Philip Glass. His soundtrack to the film Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) gave him a mainstream audience. His album Songs From Liquid Days included collaborations with Laurie Anderson, Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon. He even played keyboards with guitar surf band the Raybeats on a session that wouldn't see release until 2013. Through all of Glass's pop experiments, he never lost his language – the repeating triplets and shifting arpeggios he just amplified it, applied it in new ways, stretched it to see if it would break. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't.

The Crossing performing <i>Knee Plays</i> at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts © John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing performing Knee Plays at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
© John C. Hawthorne

The late teens and into 2020, meanwhile, have been a time of revival for David Byrne. His career retrospective stage show American Utopia spent four months on Broadway. Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo covered the entirety of the African-influenced album Remain in Light, made by Byrne and his old band Talking Heads. And on 21 and 22 February, Byrne's set of songs The Knee Plays was reworked and remixed with Glass' music by the choral group The Crossing as a part of the Annenberg Center's Glass Fest.

Calling it a song cycle is an imprecise bit of shorthand. It is actually a set of songs written by Byrne for The CIVIL warS, a proposed large-scale work to be directed by Robert Wilson that was never produced. Byrne's songs are the best known part of the project, due to their release on album in 1985, but Glass, Gavin Bryars and others also wrote sections of the opera. The Crossing's hybridization worked well, in part because Byrne's music was so close to Glass' minimalist style to begin with, and in part because of Nally's fearless direction.

The Crossing performing <i>Knee Plays</i> at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts © John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing performing Knee Plays at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
© John C. Hawthorne

Two small desks at the front of the stage set the scene with old, wooden chairs and pen and paper – notably no computers. The choir filled the role of Byrne's New Orleans brass band in voice, while sometimes serving as backup singers, repeating lines spoken by the unnamed narrator. Many of the singers also doubled on musical instruments, although the music was generally sparse. But when they did kick in, the added strings and drums gave the music a fuller orchestration than on the album. It may not have been better but, inside the small theater, it was exciting.

The whole of the ensemble, twenty in all, were dressed in white shirts, suspenders and boxer shorts, as would be evidenced when they all undressed to don wigs and floral housecoats. The sets and costumes, as well as the lyrics and added texts by Nally, Albert Einstein and Walt Whitman, set the piece vaguely in the 20th century with concerns about freedom and the tethers of career. Tenor Michael Jones, who doubled on trumpet and cello, carried much of the musical weight of the show while Nally showed confidence on the tenor and baritone saxophones. A cheeky note in the program suggested that the choir members perhaps shouldn't be playing musical instruments in public, but the music, if not particularly demanding, was certainly convincing. Dito van Reigersberg, as the unnamed orator, spoke directly to the audience, giving the texts a matter-of-fact delivery, wisely not attempting to ape Byrne's deadpan as he moved between the two desks. Unfortunately, the hard left/right pan on the two microphones caused the text to be nearly lost under the music for some parts of the room.

The Crossing performing <i>Knee Plays</i> at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts © John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing performing Knee Plays at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
© John C. Hawthorne

The Knee Plays was, to be certain, an unusual selection to kick off a Glass celebration; only five of the 12 pieces in this staging were his. But it was (according to the program) Nally's immediate pick when asked to participate, and it certainly speaks of a time in the composer's career. 

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