Talking Head takes a musical journey


MUSIC: How Music Works, By David Byrne,  Canongate, 358pp, £22

When I first picked up David Byrne’s book How Music Works, I was somewhat daunted by the title and the austere, white cover – padded and plain. I wasn’t sure if I was in for a brain-testing theoretical read, or some encyclopaedic journey through the ages, from the prehistoric origins of the musical arts and forward to the modern pop song. All I knew was, it’s an audacious title and intriguing as hell.

In fact, Byrne touches on all these things, but never with a heavy or overscholarly hand. It is a hugely enjoyable book, covering the ages of music, the context and environments it has been made in, its transcendental power and mundane economics, and what was informing it at the time of its creation.

David Byrne is one of modern music’s great intellectuals, with an expansive knowledge of and interest in all aspects of the arts. He briefly outlines his career early on in the book, taking us from his busking in art school, his move to New York, the formation of Talking Heads, his tenure at the legendary CBGB club, cult success, pop success, and his eventual journey back to some of music’s and theatre’s roots in the rhythms of Brazil and the kabuki of Japan, all carried back and filtered through his own ever-changing and evolving music and stagecraft. His journey has led him from obscurity to popularity and back, but with an ever-growing and deepening palette of colours with which to describe the situation he is in at any time.

Byrne writes about punk rock with the same ease and passion that he brings to his writing about the giants and innovators of what we now call classical music, always emphasising the primary importance of context. Mozart didn’t write for lofty concert halls; he wrote for busy palace drawing rooms, full of people eating and cheering when they heard a passage they liked, much like a rock show today. Although, even today, we’re moving more towards the gentrified audience-and-artist model that began to be popular at the beginning of the 20th century, much in the same way as it did with theatre and opera, which were pretty much Everyman entertainment way back when.

There is surely a difference between playing for an audience and playing for the tribe. An audience will sit quietly and express its satisfaction, or lack of it, with applause at the end, whereas the tribe will let you know exactly how it’s feeling right through the song and beyond.

Byrne writes extensively on the spaces for which music was written. At CBGB, for example, the room was small, with very little ambience, so punk rock, with its tight, angular sound, worked well there and the room itself didn’t colour the music very much.

African drum music, on the other hand, was performed mostly outdoors and carries well over distance. With people dancing and moving around, the music holds its own. Imagine the same drumming in a cathedral – the subtleties and counter rhythms might get lost in such a large, ambient space. The idea is that the environment moulds the music itself.

Keep them on the dance floor

Another interesting passage speaks of the beginnings of jazz soloing. He describes how, if people were up dancing, the band would keep the song going as long as it could, so that the chorus motif would be played several times. A musician would do solos until the chorus rolled round again, thus allowing the song to go on as long as the band needed it to: “If they’re on their feet, let’s keep them there!”

Another example is the fact that the three-and-half-minute pop song is that length not because it fits our attention spans but rather because that’s all the information that one side of a seven-inch vinyl single could contain. Any longer and the grooves carved into the wax would be tighter, significantly lowering the sound quality. So it was technology’s limits that shaped the length of the pop song.

Here’s a passage on the beginnings of recorded music: “John Philip Sousa was opposed to recorded music. He saw the new music machines as a substitute for human beings. In a 1906 essay entitled The Menace of Recorded Music, he wrote: ‘I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste . . . in this 20th century to come, these talking and playing machines that offer to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders and all manner of revolving things.’”

God save us from revolving things! What has happened is, to some extent, what Sousa feared. We now think of the sound of recordings when we think of a song or a piece of music and the live performance of that same piece is now considered an interpretation of the recorded version. What was originally the emulation of a performance – the recording – has supplanted performance, reversing the roles so that now the performance is considered the emulation. It seemed to some that the animating principle of music was being replaced by a more perfect, but slightly less soulful, machine.

The music business has evolved and changed, yet will always continue to seek ways to turn a new profit on an old tune.

David Byrne has written on many subjects, although this one is perhaps closest to his heart as a musician. It’s a great book to pick up and start at any chapter, a hugely rewarding and enriching read.

A fascinating look at music from many angles, I would recommend it to anyone who plays or simply has an interest in the history and evolution of the musical form, the culture of music, both as a well of inspiration and as a simple commodity.