A Scotsman in New York

David Byrnes‘ wonderful book “How Music Works

Although David Byrnes‘ book “How Music Works” was published eight years ago, I have only just discovered and read it. Luckily, this blog allows me to cover whatever topic I want and whenever I want to, so here we go! The 2012 treatise by Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne doesn’t go into what music does to an audience (as the German title “Wie Musik wirkt” spuriously suggests), but is a collection of musings on the nature of music, on the conditions in which it is produced, on the role of the artist’s personality in its creation and on the role of music in society.

This sounds very abstract at first and, I readily admit, also aroused reservations in me. But these reservations quickly dissipated when I read the book. Why? Because David Byrne writes in a very entertaining way and periodically inserts snide remarks; because his writing is precise and to the point; because he shares fascinating facts; and – above all – because he gives really illuminating insights into his work with the Talking Heads and other world-class artists. This is not an intellectual who is pontificating from his ivory tower, nor a narcissistic self-proclaimed genius, but a creative cosmopolitan blessed with lots of humor and subtle irony who, in a completely unpretentious way, is talking about his work, his history, and his fulfilling experiences with good music, be it rock, jazz, wave or Latin, classical or pop music, ritual, improvised or AI-generated music, individual songs or songs commissioned for musical productions. Of course you can read between the lines which types of music, artistic personalities and trends in the music business he likes and dislikes – but Byrne always proves himself a gentleman and treats the phenomena and people he writes about with open-mindedness and respect, and sometimes with a meaningful wink.

Fortunately, anyone expecting pretentious post-structuralist, Marxist or other observations colored by ideology will be just as disappointed in this book as an audience hoping for sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories, anecdotes from the American post-punk scene or embarrassing confessions from Byrnes’ private life. Byrne is far too sceptical of rockisms or tortured geniuses and has become much too much of a musical polymath during his creative journey to concern himself with this kind of tabloid stuff. He certainly had a lot of fun in the “rock circus”, as anyone who cares to can glean from the book; but above all he was (and still is) interested in discovering and exploring, in constantly experiencing new things, in implementing ideas and in having control over his own artistic activities.

Thus we learn how music worked in archaic communities and how it developed into a product over the centuries; how the places and contexts in which music is performed determine its nature; or how artists can only ever work with the tools and resources at their disposal – from their own talent, to the technologies available to them, to the people accompanying them on their journey. Of course, Byrne does not deny that individual skills and intuition play a role in making music – and yet he makes it vividly clear that it is not we who play the music, but that to a large extent it is the music that plays us. A pleasantly realistic rejection of the romantic idea of the broken, visionary genius who creates something unique from the depths of his or her soul. His descriptions of the industry are always gripping: From the sometimes crazy development of the first successful sound recordings to the emergence of a record and music industry, to the recent upheavals that have resulted from digitalization. And smack in the middle of all this chaos: David Byrne and the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, David Byrne and the world musicians across the globe.

One of the first chapters describes the work of the
Talking Heads, and just when you think you’ve learned everything about the
topic, the big picture emerges towards the end of the book, with detailed descriptions
on occurrences in and around the legendary New York club “CBGB’s”. “How to Make
a Scene” is the title of the beautiful chapter in which Byrne describes how a
flamboyant scene began to grow in a down-and-out club in a sketchy New York
neighborhood, which ultimately birthed Tom Verlaine and Television, Blondie,
the Patti Smith Group, The Ramones and, last but not least, the Talking Heads.
Unlike the city’s traditional music clubs, which sometimes hosted three
different mainstream acts in one evening and where the clubs charged an
entrance fee for each of these concerts (!), in the 1970s the creator of CBGB’s
agreed to charge a small entrance fee which the bands of the evening were paid,
and otherwise collected the proceeds from the drinks. This not only turned the
former biker club into a goldmine for its owner, but also into an unparalleled
artistic field of experimentation, into an informal meeting place where young
bands who were disappointed by the rock gigantomania à la Eagles and Fleetwood
Mac could showcase their own ideas of contemporary pop music. There was no real
backstage area, the equipment was set up and the instruments were tuned in
front of the audience, the stage tended to be located somewhere at the edge of
the venue, the guests drank at the long bar or played billiards, and all the
inwardly passionate combos were not necessarily in solidarity with each other. Ironically,
it was essential that nobody was forced to listen with rapt attention. The
praise of a billiard player who had been knocking a few balls across the table
all evening with his back to the band was sometimes the only and most
motivating feedback you got as an artist. Byrne amends these rather down-to-earth
descriptions with unglamorous photos and self-drawn maps of the club – giving the
reader a pretty vivid impression of this location and its specific scene, which
many an expectant sightseer and rock tourist turned their back on, horrified.

It was here at CBGB’s that Byrne, who lived with his
band mates in a flat share, after years of aimless busking and nerdy noise
production in his teenage bedroom, was able to test and develop his ideas of a
new pop music as a “work in progress”. Among the up-and-coming New York bands there
were the Pop Art bands, the Expressionists and the posing romantics – whereas the
Talking Heads belonged to the conceptual artists and minimalists: They gleefully
freed their music and stage shows of all rock, baroque and art bombast, dressed
like ordinary people, sang about fear, psychoses and dysfunctional
relationships and underpinned everything rhythmically with old funk and soul
grooves. Alienation effect galore, highly artificial but still incredibly
thrilling. Thus was born the kind of pale-faced gawky dance music which drove
rock traditionalists crazy, but electrified upcoming generations. Ever eager to
explore new horizons, the Talking Heads made rapid artistic progress, and
Byrne, who had travelled far and wide, always in search of new artistic
experiences, began to diversify his conceptual framework. He discovered
parallels between the posturing of great rock stars and the stylized forms of
presentation in traditional Japanese theater, explored the ritual character of
African music and repeatedly tweaked his stage concepts.
Someone told him that on stage, everything had to be a little bit bigger than
in real life – which is why he presented himself in an oversized suit and not
only came up with the groundbreaking album Remain In Light, but also
with celebrated tours with a polyrhythmically adept funk-rock troupe. He later
incorporated information into his shows about how these shows were “made” by
having the stage and lighting elements rolled onto the stage and installed
piece by piece – a wonderful message on the meta-level that in no way
diminished the magic of the live performance. This was followed by the
discovery of Latin American music with the corresponding song and tour
concepts, and so on and so forth.

I always had a FEELING about the Talking Heads and David Byrne, but after reading How Music Works, I really understand for the first time what was behind this music and the concerts – without it destroying the fascination it holds for me. The same applies to the details outlining the creation of some of the song lyrics, for example to Once In A Lifetime: Of course David Byrne doesn’t make the mistake of explaining his lyrics down to the smallest detail and committing himself to them. But he does reveal how these partly cryptic yet compelling lyrics were created and encourages us to take a closer look at them. Here, too, it becomes clear: Apart from lyrics which were commissioned for a musical and had to fulfil certain functions within an oeuvre, song lyrics also depended on the conditions in the rehearsal room or studio when they were being created, the conditions that had been defined beforehand or that simply somehow came about. Mr. Spock, who doesn’t really belong here, would say: Fascinating!

Are there less successful passages in this book? Not really. Although I must admit that there were two chapters which I just scanned and where I even skipped a few pages. The first, “Business and Finances”, covers contract forms and cost planning for tour and studio projects in an almost book-keepingly meticulous way. The other, “Harmonia Mundi”, revolves around the essence and origin of music and the sometimes bizarre philosophical concepts which the history of mankind has generated about it. This is where it almost gets esoteric. But I’m sure that especially aspiring musicians who are working towards their breakthrough will find valuable tips for targeted economic production in “Business and Finances” and will feel strongly motivated not to entrust their career to who knows what kind of managers and/or dubious record companies, but to take their future courageously into their own hands.

“Harmonia Mundi”, on the other hand, despite all the endless digressions, can be summed up as follows: Music is and will always be something mysterious, whose essence is unfathomable. Music somehow seems to be intrinsic to humans from the very beginning. Be that as it may: The most important thing is that music touches and moves us – nothing else matters.

Just as I was about to turn the page again, Byrne told me about the church father Augustine and his assumption that every human being would hear a divine cosmic chord at the moment of death while simultaneously having the ultimate secrets of the universe revealed to them. Deadpan comment by freethinker Byrne: “very exciting, although just a little late to be of much use.” Understandable, actually: What’s the point of knowing the secrets of the universe if I’m dead the next moment? The secrets that Augustine is said to have been privy to were then passed down through the centuries, the passage continues, but, as Renaissance philosophers conceded, were unfortunately lost at some point in time. Byrne concludes: “Oops.” It is wry comments like these that keep the reader engaged until the very end of the book. And they inspire the reader to dig out Byrnes’ later albums American Utopia or Here Lies Love again (with great singers like Roisin Murphy, Kate Pierson, Santigold and the underrated Nicole Atkins).

David Byrne, How Music Works”,
Edinburgh/London 2012.