Book review: David Byrne - How Music Works
Years ago, if you had told me a rock musician had written a book, I probably wouldn't have thought too much about it. After all, rock musicians, to me, were mostly self-taught, less technically skilled, and possessed little versatility, only able to play a few tunes that they had written themselves. Well, thank goodness for enlightenment and the death of ignorance! I got over my self-important and arrogant view of other musicians' work and now I can appreciate the artistry and skill of anyone, provided it's there to begin with! It's always been funny to me when people want to ask me "what's your favorite type of music?" I just can't answer. I like too many different types! I always say, as long as it's good, I'll listen!
Upon the recommendation of one of my favorite authors, I picked up David Byrne's book, How Music Works. Part autobiography, part how-to, part manifesto on the creative process and music's place in our society, I am totally knocked out with this work. As the front man for the Talking Heads, this guy has done more different things in music than most people can ever dream of. As I really only (sadly) knew "Burning Down the House", I have remedied that and discovered how many great albums Talking Heads put out over their career.
Mr. Byrne discussed many different topics in his book. He gives an overview of his beginnings as a musician, as well as the rock music scene in the 70s. For those of us "children of the 80s" (you know who you are), he describes how and why the New Wave and other movements began.
There are great chapters on technology: Technology Shapes Music: Analog, Technology Shapes Music: Digital, and In the Studio. Mr. Byrne has been active throughout all eras of modern recorded music and offers interesting insight into how real (successful) bands make (and made) their music in the studio, then how they were able to recreate that music in live shows.
Included as well is a deep discussion about the importance society places on different forms of music. The idea that classical music is somehow superior to other forms, he maintains, is one that has clearly been perpetuated by society, namely the wealthy patrons who might want to attach their name (and reputation) to something deemed worthwhile and prestigious. This is certainly not a new idea, but Byrne's further relation to the importance placed on rock and pop music by our society and education systems really made me think hard about my own biases and the musical world in which I have often been a participant.
Mr. Byrne's book contains a fantastic chapter, entitled "Amateurs". He discusses the importance of amateurs in the arts, and the contributions to be made by those who don't depend upon their passions to make a living. He discusses a 1906 essay by John Philip Sousa ("The Menace of Mechanical Music") where Sousa opined that "automatic music devices" will usurp the place of town bands, choruses, and listening to live music for socializing and enjoyment. Interestingly, Sousa also foresaw a time where we wouldn't have "not music", or rest between performances. He maintained that those times are critical as they allow for the formation of social bonds. I can only imagine Maestro Sousa rolling over in his grave at Congressional Cemetery over "advances" such as iPhones and Spotify.
Really, I could go on at length about this interesting and thoughtful work. Do yourself a favor and give it a read. Oh, and download something other than "Burning Down the House".
Cheers, The Virtual Trombonist