Book review: How Music Works By David Byrne

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SINCE calling time on his art-pop band Talking Heads in 1991, David Byrne has gone where his brilliant, inquisitive and (he thinks) mildly Asperger’s-influenced spirit has taken him.

How Music Works By David Byrne

Canongate, 358pp, £22

He’s made solo albums and films, written books and turned an industrial building into a musical instrument that can be “played” by anyone. And there have been any number of questing, cross-genre hook-ups. As he drily admits, the online music magazine Pitchfork “once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos”.

Some of these projects have been quietly magical or have made unexpectedly brilliant associations between musical styles or across art forms. Others have led into abstruse or minimalist cul-de-sacs. This book is like that, at times incisive and intriguing, at others maddeningly dry or – to the lay reader – impenetrable.

Byrne considers it a series of essays that can be read in any order. It’s more like a mix tape of wildly different tracks from which those interested in different aspects of music can pick their favourites while discarding the rest. He provides an intelligent discussion of how music has been shaped. First, by different environments – the open air, cathedrals, discos and (in the case of hip hop) cars and their stereo systems.

Second, by technology. The three-minute pop song was dictated by the size of a 78 or 45rpm disc, while the size of a CD, conversely, was designed to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Shoehorned strangely between these chapters is a discussion of how Talking Heads’ music and look came about: the outsize suit Byrne wore in the peerless concert film Stop Making Sense, he reveals, was influenced by Noh and Kabuki costumes.

There’s a very dry but rigorous dissection of the brutal and fast-changing economics of the music business and a conversely larky chapter about how you should set about creating “a scene” like the one that surrounded CBGB’s in New York’s Bowery, where Talking Heads, the Stooges, Patti Smith and Blondie started out. Free beer for musicians seems to be the key.

For genre nerds there’s lots of stuff about his voyages with Brian Eno, Caetano Veloso, Fatboy Slim and countless others into different cultures and concepts.

The closing chapters wax philosophical and political as Byrne discusses the moral, emotional and mystical properties of music, as well as funding and education. Often, here, his omnivorous intellect overpowers his skill as a communicator.

Altogether this book is as quirky and odd as you’d expect from Byrne, but less consistently entertaining than you’d hope.

He ends, though, on a nice defence of his absorption in all aspects of music, from classical to pop to pure experimentalism. “I like a good story and I also like staring at the sea,” he writes. “Do I have to choose between the two?”