Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works, by David Byrne (2012)


How Music Works, by David Byrne, 2012.


David Byrne. He looks like he's about to go for a bike ride.
Duke Ellington once said that there are only two types of music: good and bad. I love that quote, and I’m pretty sure that musical omnivore David Byrne would agree with it. Byrne’s 2012 book How Music Works examines many different aspects of music, from a history of how music has been recorded to the financial breakdown of the expenses of recording Byrne’s 2004 solo album “Grown Backwards.” I’m a big fan of Byrne’s music, so I was very interested to read How Music Works. 

How Music Works is a very good and interesting book, but it’s not always a successful one, as it is feels like two different books in one. For me, the most successful chapters were the ones in the middle of the book that were informed by Byrne’s own life experiences in music. The least interesting chapters were at the beginning and end, where Byrne is writing about general theories. Those chapters felt very impersonal; a lot of it is Byrne recapping other people’s research about music. Byrne is a smart guy, he has done his homework and he breaks down complex theories into clear prose. Byrne discusses how music has powerful effects on people, but he never gives us any personal examples. I’m sure there are pieces of music that have deeply moved him, but we don’t get to hear about them. I think these chapters would have been stronger if Byrne had made them more personal.

How Music Works is not an autobiography or a memoir. While Byrne does go into some personal details about his solo career and the records he made as part of Talking Heads, don’t expect any dirt to be dished. Byrne discusses how during the making of Talking Heads’ classic 1980 album “Remain In Light,” the band recorded all of the music first, and then he went off alone to write the lyrics for those songs, which were overdubbed later. It’s a fascinating way to work, and Byrne goes into some detail about the sessions for “Remain In Light.” Then he writes, “We did another record, ‘Speaking In Tongues,’ that continued with this idea of using improvised initial riffs and gibberish vocals as a guide for lyric writing. That record turned out to be the most commercially successful so far.” That’s all you get about “Speaking In Tongues.”  He doesn’t even mention that the title “Speaking In Tongues” came from his method of singing gibberish until the final words were written. Oh well. We do learn that Byrne was very disappointed with the way the first Talking Heads album turned out. He writes, “When we eventually made our first proper record, ‘Talking Heads: 77,’ it was by and large a miserable experience. Nothing really sounded like it did in our heads, or like we were used to hearing ourselves on stage.” 

After the middle three chapters of the book, which I found to be fascinating, I found the last three chapters of How Music Works to be pretty dull. I can understand how people might feel the opposite, as they might not be too intrigued by how much money Byrne made from “Grown Backwards.” But I find that kind of thing fascinating, and I enjoy reading about the finances of the music world. Back to the last three chapters that I didn’t care for. Chapter 8, “How to Make a Scene,” is basically about the New York music scene around the nightclub/bar CBGB’s in the 1970’s. Byrne spells out things necessary to support musical creativity in an area, like low rent, free admission for other musicians, and that you should be able to ignore the band that’s playing. Well, okay. But people can and do create music everywhere, no matter if the place they’re in is supporting a scene or not. 

Chapter 9, “Amateurs!” really annoyed me. In the chapter, Byrne criticizes art museums for organizing exhibitions that are popular. I’m not sure what offense he takes at this. Byrne makes it clear that he doesn’t like museums telling people what is great art and what is not. Fine, but part of the museum’s job is to preserve the art that they have and to exhibit it so people can see it. The reason museums organize “blockbuster” exhibitions is to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a museum in the door. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a firm believer that everyone, rich or poor, needs exposure to the arts. It doesn’t matter what art they like, or how they interpret the art. But I do believe that if people are exposed to the arts, they will find art that they like, which is a very good thing. Art, be it paintings, sculptures, music, movies, or books, enriches our lives. Art takes us on voyages to places that we might not otherwise visit. If believing those things makes me an elitist, well, so be it. 

Byrne resents the fact that rich people have valued classical music over other forms of music. Sure, valuing one form of music over another might be silly. For whatever reason, classical music does have a cultural cache that other forms of music simply don’t have. What Byrne seems to miss in this chapter is that innumerable museums and cultural institutions in the United States owe their very existence to rich people. Ever heard of the Carnegie Libraries? Those were all started by a rich guy. Byrne seems annoyed that orchestras get funding from state governments, while other forms of music aren’t funded as much, if at all. The reason that orchestras are supported by tax dollars is that they need to be. Pop music isn’t usually supported by tax dollars because pop music supports itself. Katy Perry doesn’t need state funding, the Minnesota Orchestra does. I think that some people take a great deal of civic pride in the cultural institutions of their city and state. I know I certainly do. When you live in the Midwest, you sometimes need to remind people on both coasts that yes, we do have culture here in fly-over land. I’m extremely proud of the cultural institutions of Minnesota, as they are a big part of what makes Minnesota a great place to live.

Byrne writes in chapter 9 that “There are some classical works that I do genuinely enjoy, but I never got Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven-and I don’t feel any worse for it.” Part of me wants to say, “Really? Beethoven’s 9th does nothing for you? The Magic Flute is just meh?” I could go on, but I won’t. I do feel that this quote reveals some of Byrne’s agenda for the chapter. Yeah, if you don’t “get” three of the greatest classical composers ever, you’re probably not going to be a big fan of all the philanthropy that supports classical music. 

Chapter 10, “Harmonia Mundi,” attempts to answer the question, why do we need music? Byrne cites lots of sources, but doesn’t add anything from his own experience to help answer the question. Which is fine, but the chapter just dragged for me.

Despite my criticisms of some of Byrne’s arguments, I would highly recommend How Music Works to fans of any type of music. As I said before, Byrne is a very smart man who writes very well about music.

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