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How Music Works

David Byrne

(London Times)

Just as his old band Talking Heads began life by defining all the ways in which they wouldn't be like other rock bands (no big hair, no flashy solos), so David Byrne eschews here all the usual stuff you expect in books by musicians (life-on-tour anecdotes, etc) in favour of tackling the brief set out in the title. He begins by rubbishing the idea that the typical rock'n'roll song is created by a cathartic outpouring of the songwriter's demons. 'I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats,' he writes. In other words, what really shapes music is the room it will be played in or the technology via which it will be heard.

Through a series of essays he then examines how the music industry works, how musicians make a living (pie charts included), and also outlines the process that led to the amazing one-chord songs on Talking Heads' seminal Remain in Light album ('In a nod to a strange ritual of the era, we recorded initial tracks at a studio in the Bahamas,' he notes drily.)

Along the way, he explores the connections between musical harmony and the ratios used in architecture and visual art, as well as the musical vibrations caused by the 'Cosmic Orgasm' that led to the creation of the universe. And as to the question of how music works: on its own, says Byrne, who ends his book with a reference to the Buddha Machine, a small box made in China that generates endless non-repeating musical pieces without the need of any musician at all.

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DAVID BYRNE is the rock star who vanished. The mesmerising front man of Talking Heads, a cult American band of the 1970s and 1980s, he disappeared into the jungles and deserts of world music after the band dissolved acrimoniously in 1991. But Mr Byrne, a Scottish-born New Yorker, never stopped making music, or sense. His new magnum opus, How Music Works, makes this clear. Fans of the band's hypnotic sound are not the only ones who will gain by hearing what this restless musical innovator has to say.

Mr Byrne's baggy treatise on the history, meaning and technology of music is no memoir. The 'ageing rocker bio' is a crowded shelf, he sardonically observes. Instead the songwriter and singer, now 60, sets out to distil all he has learned in a lifetime of musical collaboration. The result is a carpet-bag of a book, part investigation, part primer, part manifesto. What is it about music that matters so deeply? And how are changes in technology returning it to its vibrant communal roots?

Far from being a Romantic expression of the individual, music, Mr Byrne believes, is a social, even biological, phenomenon. All forms are responses to the situations and places in which they arise, whether opera houses or campfires. Yet the invention of technology to capture this evanescent experience has radically changed this essential mode of communication. Mr Byrne traces how, from wax discs to MP3 files, recordings have changed music from something we participated in to something we consumed.

Mr Byrne's survey of recording technology leans heavily on contemporary scholars. By adding his personal experience, however, the author deepens the subject considerably. It has been said of him that he would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos (a kind of crisp). He concedes this, and goes on to argue that collaborations with African, Cuban, Brazilian and other artists have shown him that music is an innate human faculty that tells us how other people view the world. To understand how music works is to grasp fundamental truths about how humans communicate creatively. His descriptions of the process used to make Talking Heads' iconic albums, Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues, for example, illuminate how gospel and African music served as sonic guides to creating the band's ecstatic, communal sound.

Music moves from innovation to homogenisation - until the next new thing arrives. Inevitably, he writes, it eats its young and gives birth to a new hybrid creature. The digital revolution follows this pattern. Music composed using software has led to homogenous corporate pop, which Mr Byrne sees as now in its final throes. Meanwhile, plummeting costs for production and distribution have left recordings virtually valueless. Unless new profit-sharing models evolve, musicians can no longer make a living from recording. Something will have to give, he says: I smell another revolution in the works.

The flip side of the record - and the good news - is that digital technology has also freed music-making from its corporate straitjacket and returned it to the place it started: in bedrooms, on laptops, a free-for-all of experimentation in which authorship is less important than collaboration and performance.

The book is a sprawl. Many readers will skip a chapter replete with pie charts that advises up-and-coming artists on how to survive in this new landscape. A chapter on how to engineer a music scene, though of documentary interest (it details the history of the downtown Manhattan club CBGB, where Talking Heads and the Ramones got their start), feels superfluous. Still, creators of all stripes will find much to inspire them in Mr Byrne's erudite musings on the biological and mathematical underpinnings of sound, from Plato to Copernicus and from John Cage to Tantric Buddhists. His observations on the nature of pattern and repetition, and on people's neurological response to aesthetic experience, apply to all creative fields.

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