Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is playing the Queen Elizabeth Theatre tomorrow (Thursday, September 20) in support of his quirky new brass band album he made recently in collaboration with St Vincent, but he's in town a day early to promote his thought provoking new book How Music Works (McSweeney's) with a talk tonight at Harbourfront's Fleck Dance Theatre with Cory Doctorow.
After spending the last few days devouring the intensive examination of sound, I'm suddenly just as interested in hearing Byrne speak about music as to hear him play it. If you're a musician, it's an essential read, and if you're a fan, it just might inspire you to begin playing music yourself (which I'm sure he'd agree would be an ideal outcome).
This isn't to say that it's flawless. At 332 pages, it's probably about 100 pages too long. While many will undoubtedly pick it up because they want to know more about his personal history as a musician, those sections are often the least interesting. It's trying to be both a memoir and a serious academic examination of music from a scientific, historical and philosophical standpoint. That latter aspect seems like it might be dry, but Byrne manages to pull together ideas from a wide variety of thinkers in a surprisingly accessible and fun summary of some fairly heavy ideas. It loses steam when he goes too deep into his own experiences, as he sometimes comes across as a little too fascinated with his own accomplishments, but using the personal as an entry point into the universal is an effective strategy overall.
Much of it revolves around exposing just how much context forms the content of music. The sections talking about the impact of physical spaces and venues on the music produced are particularly inspiring, and make the best use of his history. The chapter How To Make A Scene should be required reading for any club owner or promoter who really believes in musical communities. By examining and attempting to explain exactly why CBGB ended up being ground zero for so much important music to emerge out of NYC, he strips away much of the mystique attached to that space, without diminishing any of the magic that came from it.
Given how far along we are in post-modern period, it shouldn't be this exciting for someone to break down the myths of the lone genius and ideals of universal beauty, but those concepts still have a very strong hold on Western culture. We as a culture are still oddly obsessed with deeply flawed ideas about authenticity and individuality, and tend to get offended when those concepts are critiqued. Byrne manages to make that critique less threatening, which opens up new ways of thinking about art, even in those of us who've read most of these ideas many times before.
Similar to his examination of the effects of physical spaces is his look at how technology has shaped popular music, and how technological developments are currently drastically changing the nature of pop. Unlike many writers on this subject, he's neither a wide-eyed idealist nor a doom-and-gloom cynic. Things are changing, but they've always been changing, and music has survived every technological and economic revolution so far. He's excited about change, but not from the standpoint of someone who hates what came before - it's more a position of acceptance, combined with his enduring sense of wonder.
Be warned though, Byrne is definitely a nerd, and if you still think that word is an insult, you'll probably be bored before you finish the first page.