David Byrne's How Music Works sprawls between categories
How Music Works
By David Byrne. McSweeney’s, 345 pp, hardcover
Anyone familiar with David Byrne’s recordings—whether his solo albums, his collaborations, or his early work with Talking Heads—will recognize the voice that narrates this new and valuable book. Smart, careful, occasionally funny, and remarkably unpretentious, Byrne is good company no matter what medium he’s exploring.
That said, his is not a truly original mind. Instead, Byrne’s gift is to surf the zeitgeist, amassing and filtering information, then presenting it in useful form. That’s why you could dance—really dance, not jump up and down in place—to those early Talking Heads discs, which were as close to prog and funk as punk allowed. It’s also why How Music Works will probably send you off into your own whirlwind of information-gathering, as you explore the many other artists and musical philosophers Byrne cites.
What remains unclear is exactly where to file this new book, however. Like his earlier Bicycle Diaries—technological and sociopolitical musings masquerading as travelogue—How Music Works sprawls between categories. It’s an open-hearted and even-handed autobiography, a how-to guide to swimming faster than the music business’s sharks, an introductory survey of 20th- and 21st-century developments in both popular and art music, and a beginner’s overview of recording and playback technology.
It holds a lot, and it could have been a mess, but it’s not: Byrne the synthesist pulls it together.
In a volume this discursive and wide-ranging, it’s hard to focus on any key threads, but intelligent observations abound. Here, from a single page, we have Byrne on collaboration: “You don’t try to reverse the river, or get it to jump over a mountain, you harness its flow and energy to gently urge that it join up with other tributaries.” On the virtues of folk and pop music: “Simplicity is a kind of transparency in which subtle nuances can have outsize effects.” And on the futility of hierarchy: “Good musicians of any given style are no better or worse than good musicians of another.”
These are not ground-breaking thoughts—but having them collected in one handsome book is no small matter, either.
David Byrne and St. Vincent play the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (October 20).