Friday, March 15, 2013

'How Music Works' by David Byrne

15 March 2013

In 1985 a school friend lent me his copy of the Talking Heads LP ‘Little Creatures’ – the album that contains ‘Road to Nowhere’ and ‘And She Was’. I listened to the record a couple of times and quickly returned it, saying I thought there were a couple of good songs but I didn’t like the singer’s voice. Ah, the foolishness of youth! A year later I went to see David Byrne’s charmingly quirky film ‘True Stories’, bought the ‘True Stories’ Talking Heads album and was completely hooked. Since then, the music of David Byrne has become an essential part of the soundtrack of my life. I was blown away by his 1989 Latin album ‘Rei Momo’, and his 2001 masterpiece ‘Look into the Eyeball’ is one of my all-time favourite records – though only narrowly beating its 2004 successor ‘Grown Backwards’. So I had been very much looking forward to reading David Byrne’s new book, ‘How Music Works’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Andrew Garman). ‘How Music Works’ is part memoir – reminiscing about the early years of Talking Heads, the recording of most of Byrne’s studio albums and the experience of particular live shows – and part Reith Lecture. He looks at how the buildings in which music is performed have influenced compositional style, the process of musical collaboration, the economic models of the music business and the earliest human origins of music. I was particularly interested in his description of the process of developing his disco song cycle about the life of Imelda Marcos, ‘Here Lies Love’ (a collaboration with Fatboy Slim, reviewed here in April 2010). He talks about music education, citing our mutual Brazilian friends AfroReggae, El Sistema in Venezuela and the work of Youth Music in the UK. He also provides a fascinating encyclopaedic history of recording technologies and their effect on the writing, performance and consumption of music. Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, David Byrne devotes a whole chapter to amateurs. He says:

“The act of making music, art, clothes, or even food, has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things. And yet, for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves. They’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation.” 

He goes on to suggest that: 

“by encouraging the creativity of amateurs, rather than telling them that they should passively accept the creativity of designated masters, we help build a social and cultural network that will have profound repercussions”. 

‘How Music Works’ is a little rambling at times, undoubtedly idiosyncratic and very much in David Byrne’s unique voice, but it’s a brilliant book – highly recommended. 

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