Making Sense David Byrne’s ‘How Music Works’
David Byrne is a brilliantly original, eccentric rock star, and he has written a book to match his protean talents. It is not exactly a memoir — “the ‘aging rocker bio’ is a crowded shelf,” as he puts it in his acknowledgments. It is not exactly a series of essays about music, either, though it is some of that. It’s a little bit of both, proudly or unashamedly exposing Byrne’s biases and aimed at a particular audience: his own fans. Since he appeals to people generously diverse in age and interests, however, that’s a pretty big potential readership.
Most books that attempt to explain music’s mysteries have been technical or historical in nature and concerned primarily with classical music. What’s best about “How Music Works” is that Byrne concentrates on his own experience, from a teenage geek splicing layers of guitar feedback on his father’s tape recorder (he had a mild self-diagnosed case of Asperger’s syndrome, he writes) to arty if neo-primitive rock star with the early Talking Heads at CBGB to increasingly sophisticated, globe-wandering art-rocker, happily collaborating with all manner of world musicians and pop-technological innovators (Brian Eno, Fatboy Slim). He has toured the world many times over, sold millions of records, adapted deftly to the age of digital downloads and started his own world-music record company, Luaka Bop. But he has also written poetry, created artworks (sonic and otherwise) and directed films, “True Stories” being the best known.
“How Music Works” is a faux-naïve guidebook (meaning he reduces complex phenomena to simple terms, though not always), written for the musically illiterate pop-music player and fan. Byrne himself only gradually learned to read music in conventional notation, and even then imperfectly, although he correctly points out all the aspects of music that traditional notation misses. But as a fearless autodidact, he knows an enormous amount about the social and architectural contexts of music, about how a recording studio and evolving forms of home-studio recording function, about distribution and marketing, and record-company contracts. This is a book about the workings of music as most people today hear it and play it and think about it.
Although there are repeated references to his own life and career, this is indeed “not an autobiographical account of my life as a singer and musician”: fans looking for his side of the breakup of Talking Heads, for instance, will find nothing here. But some of the best parts of the book — even though they’ve been partly anticipated, sometimes down to the same words, in prior interviews and liner notes — involve his project-by-project descriptions of how he composed and recorded each venture and collaborated with fellow artists, the other members of Talking Heads and Eno chief among them.
Other chapters, as on the history of recorded sound, analog and digital, and the business of music, seem too indebted to his secondary sources, although his sheer knowledge is impressive and his reading and research have been extensive. His prose style is not very elegant. For starters, he should have pruned his overuse of the phrase “for starters.” And yet his personality shines indelibly through this book, just as it does through all his varied albums.
Byrne’s biases are revealing. He has little use for classical music of the past, beginning with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose music he “never got”; at one point he says Bach at the organ “doodled up and down the scales, as was his wont,” though that may be Byrnean humor.
Sometimes he’s a little defensive about his lack of interest in or knowledge of the classics: “I resent the implication that I’m less of a musician and a worse person for not appreciating certain works. . . . When I made something, even something crude, I would momentarily discredit and ignore the nagging feeling that said that if I couldn’t match the classical or high-quality model then I was somehow less of an artist. My gut was telling me that what I was doing was just fine.”
Byrne hardly considers the technical and formal aspects of “how music works” that are the principal concern of traditional music theorists — though in his last chapter he does leap down the rabbit hole into the mysteries of the harmonic overtone series and the music of the spheres. While he has some interest in the pop-classical fusions that are taking place everywhere today — he should, because he’s a leader in such fusions — he regards the adulation of most old classical music as pretension by rich people and arrivistes, and dismisses classical music’s, or maybe any music’s, claims to spiritual and moral value.
His lack of knowledge of classical music has led him astray in the past, as in his use of computer software to orchestrate his bland symphonic music for the Robert Wilson stage piece “The Forest,” and now with a few errors in this text, like misidentifying a photo of a Baroque theater in Bayreuth as Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus, misspelling “Juilliard” and claiming Merkin Hall in New York as part of Juilliard. Speaking of errors, there are also omissions, as when he enumerates the constituent elements of a “scene,” in particular the nexus of bands that gathered at CBGB in the ’70s, and ignores the role of the press. But that may be merely a matter of personal pique on my part.
Byrne wants us to discount music as the effusion of the lone Romantic genius and to understand it in its social context, as the product of Everyman. He extols the making of music rather than its appreciation, and hails the eager amateur over the jaded professional. He wants funding to flow to neighborhood social centers to encourage young people to play music, rather than to fancy new concert halls and opera houses. In one of his best lines, he writes, “Why not invest in the future of music, instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?” Although in fairness, he does praise Venezuela’s free educational program El Sistema, in which mostly poor youngsters are taught to play mostly classical music.
Ultimately, “How Music Works,” wide-ranging and thought-provoking though it may be, doesn’t quite cohere. It is full of sharp, glancing insights, but Byrne never brings his approach to music into focus. He begins by stressing the importance of music’s context and ends with his paean to amateurism and, oddly, with music’s disappearance into a cloud of ambience and formlessness. In between, he’s given to such lines as “We don’t make music — it makes us. Which is maybe the point of this whole book.” But is it? Given the plethora of interesting illustrations and charts in this handsomely designed (if casually copy-edited) book, maybe “How Music Works” will function better as the e-book, with links to actual music, that the publisher promises. In the meantime, the print version remains, for me, slightly unsatisfying. Yet it is certainly a must for the many fans of David Byrne and perhaps others, too, those who wish to follow him down his own personal rabbit hole of speculation and explication.