Saturday, February 23, 2013

How Music Works, by David Byrne

Every page left me torn -- keep reading, or share ALL THE THINGS with anyone present?

Every now and again, you come across a book that tangentially interests you, and then it rearranges the bricks in your foundation. It makes you think about how you come into contact with the world. It alters how you fit in with the world, too.

(More than likely, such books come across you and not the other way around. Books can be crafty like that.)

How can I pin down any single way this book redecorated my brain-plots when it coaxed open my mind in so many directions? I certainly pay less attention to music than many people, but for all that, I think I pay more attention than some. I notice the type of music playing in various stores (and not just when it's Christmas music in October). I try to ensure that smaller-time artists whose music I enjoy get supported by my money so they can continue making music. I bemoan the corporatization of the radio and the channels through which popular music delivers itself to us, the listening public, all the while acknowledging that I enjoy some of that very music.

Neil Young's Greendale tour: "Support Our War" -- on a Clear Channel billboard

But what do I know about the forces that shape our music? Not just the songwriters and the producers and the record labels and the means of distribution, but the venues, the scenes, the environments, the rituals, the cultures, the technology? Turns out, I hardly knew a blessed thing.

Then How Music Works came across me. From the title, I expected only a practical and theoretical look at the science of music: say, how its sounds are produced, what effect it has on us, how our brains interpret it, and so on. That's all in there, to some extent, but the book is so much more than that -- and so much more fascinating! David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame and serious experimental reputation, examines not just how music works as a transitory sonic effect, but also how it functions with us and how we function with it. (The dude can write, in that charming intellectual way that's conversational without ever dumbing down to the reader. How many writers of such deep subjects can claim that talent?)

Music, Byrne says (and I agree), is not the isolated art we often think it to be. Context shapes music just as much as music shapes context. He explores beautifully how music is better for being terrestrial, for being ephemeral yet not ethereal. Limitations on creativity spark innovations and developments and surprises -- so yes, let's acknowledge that Bach's music was shaped as much by his church and its organ as it was by his genius, and the Ramones were catapulted as much by the scene at their regular club as they were by their talents! Let's understand how recorded music differs in its very essence from live music, and then acknowledge the merits of both!

Let's recognize that we shape the music we listen to, just as it shapes us!

This book may not change how you acquire recorded music, or the type of music you listen to, or whether you play music of your own. But it's a bit like watching a documentary on factory farming. When you do each of those things, you will be aware of how you acquire, what you listen to, whether you play. You will understand that you are participating in a community that extends to wherever in time and space there is humanity.

Your foundation will change to allow for just how connected you are. Aren't these devious books the best?

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