David Byrne in Conversation: How Music Works.
Curzon, Chelsea, London
24rd Oct 2012

David Byrne recently came to the UK on a three leg tour promoting his new book, How Music Works. On the first date in London he was joined by the genius that is Matthew Herbert & the audience were asked to ponder on such subjects as “Do we need any more music”. Provocative stuff then. Soph Lord was in the audience for the evening & below she reports back for us on what sounded like a fascinating event.

As a musician, It is not often I find myself pondering the possibilities of incorporating the sound of rustling crisp packets into my work, nor is it often I contemplate the ability of music to transport the listener to other worlds beyond their reach. Also I certainly can’t say I often consider penning a song that spans the entire 24hour period of one’s day. But then again it is not often I find myself in a room with David Byrne either – who tonight found himself at Curzon Cinema, Chelsea, throwing out these aforementioned bizarre scenarios to a captivated audience.

Although I can’t answer the question “how did he get here” exactly (and although judging by his recent output ‘Bicycle Diaries’ it would be safe to assume that some of the journey was most likely made on transport of the two wheeled variety!) I can tell you why he was here. David Byrne; former Talking Head, renowned artist and, as of late, captivating and insightful social commentator, is here to discuss themes and issues that appear in his latest work ‘How Music Works’, a book that, in a proverbial nut-shell, proposes several fascinating theories and includes comprehensive research on the broad subject area that is Music and its creation.

Amongst other topics, the book touches upon the function of music, its conception and the sometimes hidden motivation and factors at play behind creating music, as well as being littered with delightful anecdotes spanning David’s 30 year career in the music industry – including at one point his long-awaited surrender of the inspiration behind that notorious ‘Big Suit’.

Not bad for a book that, as a friend commented, features a cover that is, in its striking plainness and simplicity in design, reminiscent of a gravestone (good job no one should ever judge a book by its cover then eh?).

David’s discussion on his latest work took place in 3 different places over 3 days, starting in London, going on to Manchester and finishing in Glasgow on the 26th. Each of the 3 different locations tackled a different idea proposed in the book, thereby promising a different experience from night to night.

Whilst the provocative nature of the chosen topic in London, ‘Do we need any more music?’, may at first seem a little unfounded, the audience was forced to immediately review their initial damnation of the seemingly outrageous suggestion when guest Matthew Herbert silenced doubters with the stinging fact that ‘75% of music on itunes is never listened to or bought’. This shocking statistic then prompted the suddenly quite logical suggestion that perhaps we should get through this untouched collection first before making any more. This idea may seem ridiculous at first glance but upon the conversation turning to our own music collection, Herbert suggested that most music lovers will never even manage to listen to all of the songs within their own collection, let alone all of the music available on itunes or other formats – something that certainly rang true of my own listening habits, with my tendency to skip easily through hundreds of tracks on ‘shuffle’ before settling on one. All of a sudden the question as to whether we need any more music seems more valid.

The idea of change in the music industry over the modern era remained a recurrent theme throughout the night. Both David and Matthew Herbert recalled their own experiences with change within the industry, with humorous results. Matthew’s anecdotes seemed to somehow always end up relating to food – which culminated in frequent roars of laughter from the intently-focused audience members. David’s insights into the way in which music has changed proved particularly well-considered, articulate and thought provoking, however.

Points of particular interest to me included his claims that in the modern age, due to the lack of sales courtesy of the download culture of music consumers, more and more artists seem to be relying on advertisements as a means of reaping in cash – which, as he suggests, there is nothing wrong with – except that this in turn endangers their sincerity as an artist as their songs become associated with the product it is being used to endorse – as David points out, people start to associate their work as ‘the shampoo song’ (cue hysterical audience laughter) and this in turn affects their interpretation of the art form, leading to a neglect of the true meaning of the song and the writer’s intention. Thankfully this means that fans can rest assured that Mr. Byrne remains and always will remain sincere enough to prevent ‘Psycho Killer’ from ever being used in a shampoo advert, although admittedly it would probably prove comedy gold were it to be used in a shower scene considering the narrative of Alfred Hitchcock’s work of a similar title.

He next went on to further explain changes he had experienced in his working life as a musician, including the fact that even the way we receive music has changed. We are constantly exposed to music via various means; advertisements, background music, radio and many other sources; whereas in his own early days as a musician, David recalls that the only way for his music to be heard sans record label was via live performance, hence Talking Heads became primarily a performance band. Nowadays, however, David continues, composers can write pieces and broadcast them without having ever stepped onstage or contemplated the idea of it. In this sense David observes that more so than ever before recorded music is created without the aspect of the live performance being taken into account – allowing for bigger arrangements, but more difficulties in accurately recreating these in the live environment – something he goes into great detail about in the book itself. Fascinating stuff.

David and Matt suggest that this shift from performance to recorded music is largely due to advances in technology, and, whilst this may seem obvious, what is not so obvious perhaps is the fact that they both suggest that this may have even influenced the way in which songs are written. The ‘grid-like’ structure of modern day recording software, for example, they argue encourages ‘perfection’ in terms of the timing of music and therefore contributes to inherent roboticism and lack of reality in the end result – or in David’s words – ‘it’s a bit like spellcheck for music!’ However, the pair also acknowledged the positives in this approach – with David admitting that the easy-to-use format of many recording software programmes allows for him to ‘sketch out’ an idea with ease and this similarly proves useful for non-musicians who can find that, by using a few simple chords, they can start building a song – something that, in my experience, seems to be considered a dark art by non-instrumentalists – and therefore this allows an entire new population to enjoy this creativity.

Amidst all of this change, however, it would appear that he still feels that Music remains as important as ever and that often individuals see their expanding musical tastes as a ‘personal voyage of discovery’ and a ‘means of creativity in itself’, much in the same way that he did in his younger years. It seems that in David’s engrossingly deep brown eyes that although the creative process may have changed, due to the influence of technology and socio-economic factors along with a change in our means of listening, the art form remains as prominent and powerful as ever – with David claiming that, in the live arena, he feels that individuals are applauding not for the performer onstage, but for that moment in time and the happiness they feel courtesy of the event on the whole – such is the power of music. And, speaking as someone who, in an expression of sheer happiness, was clapping and arfing like an overenthusiastic, hungry sea lion at the end of his talk tonight, I must say I am quite inclined to agree.

The event was filmed and a Q+A followed after the pair’s words of wisdom, here’s to hoping, however, the cameras miraculously malfunctioned just before my pitiful, nervy attempt at asking Mr. Byrne a question. As the song goes ‘you’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything…’

Find out more about the book from David’s website here.

All words by Soph Lord. More work by Soph can be found here.

1 COMMENT

  1. A fine review of what sounds like a thought-provoking evening. Unfortunately, I missed the Manchester talk, as I was out of town that night.

    I did catch Michael Nesmith at the RNCM last week. Nez, accompanied by a bassist, a keyboardist, and a couple of MacBooks, proudly explained his “array of virtual instruments”, which unfortunately tipped the cheese needle into the red and gave the performance somewhat of a John Shuttleworth vibe. There’s something to be said for real musicians playing real instruments, even in the 21st century.

    It is ironic that Byrne, together with Brian Eno, was partly responsible for precipitating the modern music-sampling revolution with his seminal 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Did anyone ask him if he felt any guilt for this?

    Regarding the use of music in advertisements, the Cash family remain po-faced:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-207_162-600686.html

    But the real question is, what flavour crisps would you incorporate into your work?

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