The best book Fragmented Frequencies read this year was How Music Works (Canongate/Allen & Unwin) by David Byrne. It’s a broad, somewhat bold title, yet it’s also entirely accurate as the force behind Talking Heads unpacks the world of music with a rare kind of candour.
It’s a wide ranging at times tangential work about how art is created via changing technology, why specific musical traditions developed in specific spaces and not others, how the business side of music works and how economics, technology, creativity, culture and the individual all combine together to create art.
There are frequent penny dropping moments throughout the 332 pages,
He goes into detail about standard record company deals, in plain speak, discussing their merits and pitfalls, and then he provides examples from his own discography, offering pie charts detailing his expenses recording 2004’s Grown Backwards album, as well as the revenue he earned, coming to the realisation that for one year’s work he earned about $58,000, pretty much what an elementary school teacher makes in New Jersey.
This kind of financial honesty is rare in a musician of Byrne’s stature, yet he’s also remarkably candid about his creative decisions. Early on he devotes a section to stage fashion, referencing his interest in Japanese Kabuki theatre and cataloguing the evolution of the Talking Heads stage show. He also discusses his methods for writing lyrics, which involves initially coming up with melodies made from “nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion.” Later he’ll attempt to work out what the nonsense guy was actually saying and transcribe actual words. If that’s not enough for you he then goes into intricate detail about how he approaches oohs an aahs.
He’s very clear this isn’t an autobiographical work, yet he frequently draws upon his own experience to illustrate a point, and this is where it becomes the most compelling. It really doesn’t matter whether you like his music or not. Whether its discussing the early days hanging out at CBGB’s on the Bowery in New York in the chapter where he lists the 7 essential ingredients in creating a scene, or the background to creating his seminal 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, or even their more recent album in 2008 where they didn’t actually meet, it’s like being given an unrestricted window into David Byrne’s world. The fact that he’s such a reflective thoughtful bloke is just a bonus.
If you’ve read Greg Milner’s excellent Perfecting Sound Forever or Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music you’ll notice some crossover at times, in fact Byrne explicitly cites both authors. Yet How Music Works deserves to stand alongside these books, as Byrne’s life experience makes him uniquely placed to discuss these issues. Who else would suggest that an essential ingredient in creating a music scene is to have a space where you can ignore the band? Why? Because if you’re standing front and centre to the stage all your critical defences are up and your senses are magnified intently studying every little thing. If you’re instead playing pool, firstly the band doesn’t feel so intensely scrutinised so creativity can develop and the listener may very well be more open to coming along for the ride.
As founder of the Luaka Bop record label, Byrne’s arguments and examples also span non-western examples, everything from Soviet state sponsored music to eccentric Brazilian composer Tom Ze. He cites Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, Pythagoras, Theodor Adorno, neurologists, ethnomusicologists, philosophers, critics, you name it. He discusses Madonna’s record contract, David Geffen’s philanthropy, and how the Talking Heads track Psycho Killer was originally meant to be a ballad.
Unlike Neil Young he doesn’t mourn the changes in technology, cheerfully acknowledging that that most of his listening these days is via mp3. In fact he views the advances to technology as a method of giving power back to the artist.
It’s thoughtful, self effacing and written in a conversational tone with Byrne coming across as a big brother figure. If you’ve ever wanted to get under the hood of the music business, there’s no better way.