A McSweeney’s Books Q&A with David Byrne, author of How Music Works.
How Music Works is the book you wanted David Byrne to write: a singularly fascinating exploration of the subject this multi-talented artist has spent decades thinking about. It is an impressive performance in its own right, and we couldn’t be more pleased to be publishing it at McSweeney’s. We asked the author to answer a few questions over email about the book’s genesis and the process of researching and writing it. — Ethan Nosowsky
McSWEENEY’S: How did How Music Works come about? What first made you decide to write about music instead of just performing or recording it?
BYRNE: I didn’t sit down and decide to write a book right away. In a sense, I had already begun, so it was a matter of seeing where it led. The first chapter began as a TED talk, and the business chapter began as a piece in Wired, where in the same issue I spoke with Radiohead about their “pay what you wish” experiment with In Rainbows. I had blogged some other stuff—a rather long convoluted piece that connected the science of psychoacoustics, the phone company, digital culture, and the invention of the Internet. That one got cut—it might have been a stretch.
Anyway, I realized that all these peripheral things affect the music we hear. And I realized that I was interested in them, and that maybe other folks would be, too.
McSWEENEY’S: You argue against the romantic idea that music or art emerges from some sudden upwelling of emotion within an individual. Instead, you make the case that music emerges from its particular social, cultural, or even architectural context. Was this something you always suspected, or did it take a while for you to get there?
BYRNE: I think I’ve come around to that position after many years, but it isn’t a new idea. In his book The Voices Of Silence, Andre Malraux points out that paintings became the dominant art form for many centuries because you could carry them around. This maybe seems obvious—you can’t carry around a gothic cathedral, after all—but I realized that the form and size and mediums that we work in are influenced by a host of factors, the very least of which is some traumatic personal event. So, while a songwriter may write a whole album about how their girlfriend dumped them, the fact that they choose to convey that in three minute songs, with structures that are probably familiar, and using melodies and chord changes and sounds we find attractive or intriguing—well, a lot of our big creative decisions have already been made for us. That’s not to say the breakup didn’t fuel some part of the creative process—I’m just saying that most of what makes a piece of music sound the way it does has nothing to do with one’s personal life.
McSWEENEY’S: The book is filled with passion and optimism about music making. And yet you are clear eyed about the state of the music industry today, and an entire chapter of the book delves into the challenges of recording and distribution. How do you keep your spirits up?
BYRNE: I’ve been lucky—I think I was in the right place at the right time, and that has allowed me to have a continuing life in music. I work really hard, and I’m pretty focused—well, most of the time I am—so it wasn’t all just luck. I’m in a pretty cushy position, to be honest. I can do—within a perimeter—almost whatever I want. Which can be deadly.
Anyway, there’s a lot going on in music right now. Pretty much every day I hear something that interests me—it could be live or on the Internet or in someone’s house. (Just today I read about a soundscape recording made in Chernobyl, which has turned out to be one of the few places without human interference—of the non-nuclear sort anyway—in a temperate climate.) There’s so much great music happening, and musicians now are more serious about making a life in music—they don’t simply entrust others to do it for them. Emerging musicians are more in charge of their own careers and lives than they used to be—it’s a great thing, and it’s reflected in the music we see coming out now.
McSWEENEY’S: Has reading and writing about music changed your approach to performance?
BYRNE: Writing this book made it clear to me just how many factors affect the music we hear. I suspected as much, but in the course of writing it, and especially responding to editing, it seemed more like one idea than a bunch of separate hunches about, say, recording and the acoustics of buildings. I don’t think that insight will change my approach to performance—those attitudes seem to get formed while on stage or watching others perform. I’ll be there soon. [Go here for David Byrne’s tour dates with St. Vincent.]
McSWEENEY’S: Did you stumble across anything that really surprised you while researching the book?
BYRNE: The John Phillips Sousa quotes in his essay “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” As a bandleader you can imagine how he felt about encroaching recording technology—that recorded music is “like eating canned salmon by a trout stream.” He was referring to how he envisioned recorded music replacing the live social experience. He also pointed out that with recorded music, the “band never has to take a break.” You don’t have time to absorb or socialize when the music stops playing. He might have been cranky but I don’t think he was entirely wrong.
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