Thursday, July 4, 2019

David Byrne How Music Works 2017

David Byrne is an interesting guy, and multitalented. As the leader of the Talking Heads, he always seemed a bit quirky in a smart, sophisticated, ironic sort of way. This book, essentially a collection of essays on his own career in music as well as music itself, is an excellent read. Part autobiography, part treatise on music in relation to performance spaces, technology, neuroscience, and society, the book is readable, insightful and well researched. This 2017 edition adds one chapter not included in the original 2012 printing.

Chapters investigate musical styles and the effects on music of the environments in which the performances take place (Chapter 1), how we choose what we listen to (Chapter 5), and how to sell music in today’s environment as well as how things used to work (Chapter 8). Other essays explore how new music can be encouraged by the “scene” that encourages performers (Chapter 9, mostly a explanation of why CGBG became a famous hole in the wall), a great treatise on financial support for the musical arts, music therapy and the social fabric of our relationship with music (Chapter 10), and a summary that touches on our personal experience of music, looking at neuroscience and social factors (Chapter 11).

The more autobiographical sections focus on Byrne’s performance (Chapter 2), his recordings, including several interesting insights into how recordings have changed (Chapter 6), and his collaborations with a wide variety of musicians from different genres since his days with Talking Heads (Chapter 7).

Two chapters (3 and 4) explore how Technology Shapes Music, and it’s a concise history of analog and digital technology’s effect on music and performance since the beginning of recorded music in the early 20th century. It is a nice overview, intriguing and a bit controversial at times. Byrne makes some excuses for digital sound quality, but overall he handles the progression through the last century and a quarter with aplomb.  This section applies his research to both how we listen to music as well as how it is recorded and played back, and how these technologies interact with performance.

There is none of the dirt dishing about band members that fill many rocker’s autobiographies, and there is no real attempt at explanation of why he’s such a brilliant guy. And those, along with many other qualities, make this a book that probably shouldn’t be considered an autobiography at all.

It’s brilliant, it’s engaging, it’s original and fun to read. And you'll probably learn something, too.

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