How Music Works by David Byrne

Books Reviews David Byrne
How Music Works by David Byrne

David Byrne acquired fame as the lead singer and guitarist of Talking Heads, one of the downtown New York bands that helped sweep punk and new wave to prominence in the late ‘70s. His latest book, How Music Works does not qualify as an autobiography; instead, his career as a musician serves as an entry point for a more general discussion about music.

Byrne wants to teach and conjecture, discussing music’s connection to human origins, its history, its evolution, its strengths and its weaknesses. Each chapter, Byrne tells us, “focuses on a distinct aspect of music and its context. . . The chapters are not chronological or sequential.” While Byrne suggests “there’s a flow to it,” there’s a lot of loosely related material here, and the book flows … but slowly.

Of 10 chapters, by far the most interesting are those on the subject Byrne knows best of all: Talking Heads and the music he had a hand in making. The innovative and influential Heads came up playing pin-pointed, guitar-driven rock behind a strangely charismatic frontman. In time, the band started to work with more explicitly funky or pop structures, landing hit singles and popular music videos on MTV before officially breaking up in 1991. (Byrne still makes music at a steady rate. He released an album with St. Vincent earlier this year.)

Byrne describes the origin and development of Talking Heads sound, designed in a calculated manner to set the band apart from previous modes of expression: “The range of pre-existing performative models from which to draw on was overwhelming – and artistically invalid. . . because those tropes were already taken. So the only sensible course was . . . to strip everything back . . . we took reductionism pretty damn far.” In a rock world built on the idea of being a rebel or outcast, Byrne, “thought the most subversive thing was to look totally normal.”

As Byrne tells it, his whole career—with Talking Heads and solo—can be seen as one massive process of stripping everything back and building it up again in new ways. He describes the thought process that drove many of his decisions.

Working with Brian Eno, an avant-garde musician and producer who collaborated on several albums, Byrne put together My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which threw the pop rule-book out the window. With Eno, the songwriter used “cardboard boxes as kick drums, biscuit tins as snare drums,” endless repetitive patterns, and “found vocals”—singing taken from other songs. If this sounds similar to the found objects movement in the visual arts, it is. Byrne describes this album as an assault on the idea “that everything one utters or sings (or even plays) emerges from some autobiographical impulse.”

Byrne’s frank discussion of his artistic process illuminates the cat-and-mouse game that often characterizes success as a musician. How do you gain attention and set yourself apart in a world full of creativity? Byrne actively worked to disregard convention, purposely acted in ways considered strange or off, pretended that even the most basic building blocks of pop music—a drum set and a lead singing line —did not exist. He constantly incorporated new sounds, either by working with a revolving cast of collaborators who brought different ideas to the turntable or by appropriating forms in other styles of music.

Talking Heads’ (and Byrne’s) most critically lauded album, Remain In Light, also came from the process of stripping things down, even though it resulted in a fuller sound that required a much larger live band. Byrne and Eno took the lessons of their My Life recording sessions and brought them into a full band setting with the rest of the band. As Byrne describes it, “One or two people would lay down a track, usually some kind of repetitive groove. . . Others would then respond to what had been put down, adding their own repetitive parts, filling in the gaps.” Repetition and free response formed the basis of very simple tracks – “Often in these songs there was no real key change. . . one could still imply key modulations. . . we had basically abandoned the rules we had previously accepted. . .punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” As Byrne acknowledges, he took a roundabout and convoluted path to find the foundation of many blues tunes and a lot of James Brown funk: a single chord.

Byrne writes about his own music and career for barely a quarter of How Music Works. The bulk of the book contains Byrne’s ideas and speculations on diverse subjects he believes relate to music’s context: the ways “Technology Shapes Music;” the financial aspects of making music in today’s market; and the importance of amateurs to music-making. One chapter titled “Harmonia Mundi” (a play on the name of a book published by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1619) gets into the deep stuff, asking questions like “…do we need music? Does it even matter? Where did it come from?” and “What did ancient music sound like?” While some of Byrne’s discussions and meditations interest, others read like a textbook or school lesson, with little sense of narrative or movement.

Byrne certainly reads a ton, and he wants to get everything he’s read into the book. He would have benefitted from tight editing and a lot less wishy-washiness. In the 65 pages discussing music and technology, Byrne reminds his readers again and again that technology has both pros and cons. It’s good he’s not narrow-minded; few now find diatribes about how the mp3 represents the downfall of mankind very interesting.

But Byrne seems unable to decide what he thinks (or perhaps he wants the reader to know that he thinks a lot of different things). During his section on cassettes, within a couple of pages, Byrne writes: “Quality was sliding down a slippery slope, but the freedom and empowerment that was enabled by the technology made up for it.” Then he writes, “Wider and more ecumenical dissemination of cassettes wasn’t always for the better.” Next he writes, “There is always a tradeoff.”

We get it.

When talking about musicians who purposely fuzz up their recordings—trying to “sound as lo-fi as possible” – Byrne similarly talks in circles, “We are often offered, and gladly accept, convenient mediums that are ‘good enough’. . . Where does this road of compromise end, and does it really matter. . . Maybe ‘good enough’ is ok. Or maybe not.” Then three paragraphs later, “Maybe the low-fi music crowd has a point?”

Maybe there’s a point, and maybe there’s not. Either way, Byrne never gets to it.

At times, Byrne appears to pitch the book to readers who know virtually nothing about the world of pop music (probably not his likely audience). He digresses from his discussion of musical technology to talk about mix tapes as if no one had ever encountered them. “The mixtapes we made for ourselves were musical mirrors. The sadness, anger, or frustration you might be feeling at a given time could be encapsulated in the song selections. . .”

Later, Byrne assures the reader, “I actually do listen to a lot of music.”

Byrne’s a really talented musician. Does that mean he’s an interesting writer? Does writing a killer hook mean a musician can write a good book?

Bob Dylan supposedly came close to winning the Nobel prize in literature at the end of 2011, and at least one museum has organized a display of his drawings. Many successful musicians engage in other creative work. A number of musicians with huge hits have given acting a shot—Sinatra, Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Andre 3000. Since live performance involves a great deal of theatricality, it doesn’t feel such a stretch to go from pop star to movie star. (On the other hand, it may not be as easy as it looks, judging from the film careers of several of the above musicians.)

Singers also like to write books about their own careers. For many musicians, creating an autobiography answers the same impulse that caused them to make music in the first place: the need to say something about themselves.

Perhaps there’s a reason that most musicians don’t stray too far from the things they know in creating music, or describing that process. Making music comes more easily than other expressive forms. Writing about the music may seem like a natural extension.

Byrne does fine when he sticks to his own career. But when not focused on experiences in the studio, his writing loses its firsthand intensity, its narrative coherence, and a good deal of its power to interest.

Byrne ends his book with this line: “I like a good story and I also like staring at the sea—do I have to choose between the two?”

Of course he doesn’t. He can do whatever he wants. But the reader may not be greatly entertained with his choice.

Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.

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