David Byrne – How Music Works (Cannongate/ Allen & Unwin)



Second editions, in the book world, often have revisions and “How Music Works’ is not any different. Conceptually, in terms of the apparatus and form of music, the idea of music is constantly in revision. So don’ expect a definitive answer to the question if you are visiting David Byrne’ tome. Talking Heads fans and aficionados’ of Byrnes oeuvre will be rewarded with a glimpse into the creative process of Byrnes assent and aspiring musicians will come to a deeper understanding of the creative process as a whole. However this is not a template for a creative musical career, far from it. There are a good deal of ideas that are specific to Byrnes time and other ideas that are timeless. To a certain degree his inclination to music as a spiritual practice intertwines with ideas of community building, collaboration and co-creation. The beginning and end chapters of the book go more into theoretical overviews of the origins and functions of music. Examinations of how music functions within different environments for both social, psychological and adaptive reasons are canvassed and the ideas referenced to their theoretical origins. Byrne has read a lot on the topic and for those inclined a wide universe of musicology can be opened up by the book, which does not aspire to be an academic tome but is clearly influenced by the ideas from this field.

Discussions about the nature, role and history of technology fill a good third of the book. Byrne starts the history from recorded music’ origins in 1878 and gives a potted history of the activity of recording. More importantly he focuses on how the act of recording gives voice to members of the community and is a device for the wide dissemination of ideas of both insider and outsider culture. The emphasis on giving voice to a folk aspect of life, in how life is lived on a day-to-day basis by “authentic everyday people’ is highlighted by Byrne’ account. This is given further emphasis in Byrnes forays into music of other cultures, specifically South America, through his imprint “Luaka Bop’. Notions of collaboration and cross-fertilisation are rife and the idea of similar ideas explored through different cultural modes is key to understanding Byrne’ take on music. Then there is the account of the progress of musical technology and the effects it has both on the form, performance, content and lived experience of musicians and audience. Insights into how technology changes practice and experience are invaluable and Byrne picks up on some of the key watersheds, especially in the late 20th century. In as much as his early chapters talk about the effects of performance space, architecture and environmental factors in the outcome of musical practice and form, the chapters on technology talk about the changing conditions and shape of music and it’s s practice.

The chapters on the business of music are quite pragmatic. They describe clearly differing models of distribution, give an unemotional and direct account of business practice in the music world. Byrne dispels the idea that he is somehow a wealthy practitioner of the arts and shows through progressive iterations of the models that he and others have adopted how it finally worked better as a living when the artist released mode was put into effect. However he clearly demonstrates that there are benefits and hazards for all the paths walked in this space and that to earn a living in the performing arts is not for the faint hearted.

Byrne closes the book with a conceptual overview of music, it moves between the theoretical, the conceptual, metaphysical views and psychological accounts of music. Always at the side you have the inkling that there is a smidgen of counter-cultural spiritual yearnings in Byrnes practice. There is an emphasis on music as a form of joy and giving expression to these states; opening up these spaces to the audience and the joyous dance of life as being central to how music truly works.



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