When I first saw the cover photo for How Music Works by David Byrne (McSweeney’s, 2012) I presumed it was a placeholder and that the real cover shot, complete with colors and illustrations, was coming soon. Not the case: the no-nonsense black and white cover (designed by McSweeney’s founder and author Dave Eggers) is purposely stripped down and simple, to keep the focus on what’s inside: the Talking Heads singer’s entertaining and informative essays on music, drawing on his long and innovative career in the business.
I found myself thinking a lot about that third word in the title as I read, because the essays consider nearly every angle of its meaning. How music “works” as in how it affects listeners: in “Creation in Reverse,” Byrne traces the history of musical evolution, its impact on human culture, and the sometimes unintended impact that humans exert over music through the design of concert halls and the invention of recording devices. As orchestra halls got better acoustically and as audiences stopped yakking through performances, for instance, classical composers had to create “bigger” and more textured sounds to fill up the room – think the bombastic compositions of Mahler, who wrote for opera halls, versus Mozart who wrote for the drawing rooms of his patrons.
The book also looks at how music “works” in the sense of how a song or album comes to be: in “In the Recording Studio” and “Collaborations,” Byrne pulls back the curtain to explain exactly how it feels to record live, versus in a studio, versus exchanging tracks recorded on a laptop via email with far-flung musical partners. He’s honest with his assessments, talking about where things worked (or didn’t) for his own recordings, and about what he might have done differently. And it was a treat to see images of the yellow-lined notepad on which the lyrics for “Once in a Lifetime” were being refined – “letting the days go by/into the silent water/nothing can stop me now/letting the hours disappear” etc.
Finally, Byrne talks about how music “works” as in the business of music: he provides the most honest, detailed accounting I’ve ever read of what it takes to create a profitable album in the current technological and economic climate, complete with pie charts and disclosure of his own costs and revenues. It’s by turns depressing and encouraging – he uses one of my favorite under appreciated artists, Teddy Thompson, as an example of someone whose musical ambitions don’t neatly fit into the emerging recording landscape. But Byrne also makes a convincing case that new opportunities are arising all the time.
The book is a must-read for Talking Heads fans, giving a pocket-sized history of the band and devoting many, many paragraphs to the special role played by everyone’s favorite dump, CBGB’s. But even casual music fans will find something enlightening here. I was surprised to read his impassioned defense of artists who are good in the studio and not as skilled at live performances, and vice versa. I’ve always considered the live performance the true measure of a band’s talent, but Byrne makes a compelling case that the skills needed to create a great pop studio recording aren’t necessarily the same as what makes for a top-notch live performance, and that there is equal merit in each type of expertise.
Britney Spears, I take back (a few of) my prior bad thoughts.
Byrne goes off on a bit of a tangent towards the end, talking about how drug dealers believe they can resuscitate their reputations by donating to symphony music halls. But the quirkiness is in keeping with the image of Byrne as the best history/science/music theory teacher you never had in college, one of those guys who cares deeply about his material and only wants you to feel the same way. How Music Works is the textbook that you’d be reading ahead in, every week.