On David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

by Thomas Brett

It’s hard to keep track of all the things David Byrne does. He’s the former front man of the Talking Heads, of course, but also a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with musicians from all over the world, a record label founder, a sound art installation artist, a designer, a visual artist, a photographer,a bicycle enthusiast, a blogger, and a writer. Everything connects in Byrne’s world, and he is excellent at getting us to hear, see, and read how and why. How Music Works (McSweeney’s 2012) is Byrne’s set of essays about music and his ongoing musical life. The book is part memoir, part music ethnography, part music history/music theory, part cultural critique, part music business advice manual, and part diary. It all adds to up to a meandering yet consistently engaging read. Part of what makes Byrne interesting is how he takes on the big issues–issues that many academic specialists might avoid–by taking a bird’s-eye view of music making on a global scale.

Byrne is a generalist in the best sense of the word, constantly asking questions about the nature of music, how it works, and how it affects us. For example, in the opening chapter, he examines the possibility that music evolves to suit its acoustic context. Byrne illustrates his thesis by comparing and contrasting varied musical traditions (and their contexts) that range from West African drumming to Gregorian chant, opera, to Bach, Mozart and Mahler. It’s a fascinating perspective that helps explain the possible relationships between musical structure and acoustic context. As Byrne points out, the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming would be a blur of sound inside a gothic cathedral; likewise, chant music sung outside would miss the sustain and ambiance provided by a church’s resonant interior space. Later in the book, Byrne extends this concept of space shaping musical style in his discussion of CBGB’s, the New York bar rock club the Talking Heads first honed their craft and sound. All this fits with Byrne’s general theory that creativity is not such much about the artist who makes stuff as much as it is about the conditions–social, but also physical and acoustic–that make the artist’s craft possible in the first place.

In addition to weaving grand theories, Byrne writes about the musics around him as they make sense through his own listening. He makes striking observations about contemporary hip hop, for example. Designed for booming sound systems, hip hop heard emanating from a moving car, says Byrne, is “generous music” in that its booming low end is publicly shared for all to hear (whether they want to or not!). The style is also kind of abstract in that it “floats free of all worldly reference” (132). Byrne elaborates: “It’s music that, by design, affects the body. It’s very sensuous and physical, even though the sounds themselves don’t relate to any music that has ever been physically produced. You can’t play air guitar or mimic playing an instrument to a contemporary hip-hop record; even the sounds that signify ‘drums’ don’t sound like a drum kit” (132). Similarly, Byrne is adept at explaining his own history of making music–at home alone in his studio, or in his many collaborations with other musicians (most recently with St. Vincent). Byrne shares his technique for improvising wordless melodies (158), working with the limitations of computer software, and even the genesis of his lyrics for the Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime” (161). Byrne likes music that grooves and makes us move and explains how the Talking Heads essentially made acoustic dance music, working collaboratively in the studio as a human step sequencer: “One or two people would lay down a track, usually some kind of repetitive groove that would last about four minutes…Others would respond to what had been out down, adding their own repetitive parts, filling in the gaps and spaces, for the whole length of the ‘song’”(157-58).

For Byrne, this collaborative songwriting process was “about hunting and pecking with the aim of ‘finding’ short, sonic, modular pieces…Then we would shape those accumulated results into something resembling a song structure” (186). Insiders’ accounts of musical process like Byrne’s help us understand what it was like to be making popular art music on the lower East side of Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It captures the feeling of being on the crest of a wave that included punk (the Ramones also played at CBGB’s), disco, gospel and other American vernacular musics, and modern classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass–and how these styles and sounds came crashing together in the Talking Heads’ post-punk, pre-synth pop art-dance funk-rock. Says Byrne, “while punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” Using only a single chord “made the tracks feel more trance-like, somewhat transcendent, ecstatic even–more akin to African music or Gospel or disco” (159). These tracks, he says, were “driven more by textural variation than by melody or harmony–more like minimal classical music or some traditional forms of music around the world than the rock and pop traditions we came out of” (159).

Inspired by Byrne’s description of his one-chord rock, I had a re-listen to “Once In A Lifetime.” I first heard the song in the early 1980s via MTV. I was a little young to appreciate the music back then, but I do remember the live concert video in which a sweaty Byrne dressed in an oversized suit channeled the role of a preacher on a roll. As I listened to the song again I was struck by how solid, rhythmic, and well orchestrated the song is. Wow! It really does sound like a band making steady-state acoustic machine music, with just enough little quirky touches–like the occasional slightly wonky drum hit–to give it soul. What is most noticeable to me is how every part–the two note bass part, the disco guitars, and even the vocals–fits into its own rhythmic slot and leaves room for the others. Here’s the song:

There’s a lot of other material covered in How Music Works too–including essays on music recording technology, the politics of elitism in classical music, and the evolutionary origins of music. Here and elsewhere, what Byrne’s book does best is convey the thinking of an artist still very much at work–listening, composing, performing, collaborating, reading, mulling ideas over, spinning theories, sharing passions and excitement, giving advice, and even giving credit where credit is due. At one point in the book, Byrne simply suggests that for him, creativity is something to engage in as an everyday activity like cooking or doing errands. Creativity is also an emergent force–less a product of our individual talents than the networks of energy and information in which we find ourselves. It’s an interesting notion, and one that How Music Works communicates over and over by being generous, open, and self-effacing.

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