I was first introduced to the music of Talking Heads when a friend suggested I get a copy of their album Speaking in Tongues back in 1983. From its opening song of “Burning Down The House,” I was hooked. I had never heard anything like this band and I anxiously awaited each new album. Even after David Byrne left the group, I continued to follow his solo career, particularly his work with Brian Eno. He, along with Peter Gabriel, introduced me to world music.
David Byrne’s work has always been protean and eclectic, which is what has always made him so fascinating and brilliantly original. One never knows what to expect whether it be in music, film, poetry or art. And How Music Works reveals the cross-pollination of knowledge from so many facets of the arts and science that Byrne has spent a lifetime piling up. What other musician can write about creativity in terms of adaptation referencing how birds and whales have to their surroundings and the changes that have come about because of humans to architecture as an instrument to how the mind can be manipulated in regards to images and sounds?
David Byrne is a deep thinker who is able to connect the dots between what appears to be dissimilar subjects: from neuroscience to the mixtape to Bunraku. Because of this, Byrne deftly causes the reader to consider, question and to think about these subjects as well.
We live in a world that is crowded with noise and sounds that are more often forced on us as we go about our days. There used to be a time when one had to go out to a concert to hear music performed live but now, with the advent of portable music devices, it is now the soundtrack to our lives as we hear music playing in our earbuds or headphones. “Are mobile devices,” David Byrne writes, “and the musically cluttered world we inhabit starting to substitute for our interior voices?”
When I read that question, I found myself pondering what he’s asking and the implications of what that really means. I consider how humans have impacted the soundscapes of our environments and the effect that has had on the aural landscape as well as nature itself. We can go to the woods and no longer hear what our ancestors heard if they had gone to that exact same spot. And what have we lost by this? Byrne later writes, “Now hearing is ubiquitous, and silence is the rarity that we pay for and savor.”
David Byrne understands and writes about the interconnectedness of the arts to the world in so many more ways than most musicians would even stop to consider. Byrne is not interested in writing a music memoir, though there are passages about his career (both in Talking Heads and solo), but the book is more about his observations and understandings of not only the music business but music and sound itself. This book is filled with ideas and intelligence, wit and wisdom. This book is an exploration of his interest in music from around the world (Bollywood to Brazilian Pop to Balinese gamelan to Afro-Cuban to Pink Floyd) to literature, poetry, art, architecture, movies, and fashion, to writing about the pure the delight of discovering new music and how we are able to do that now through mediums like Spotify.
And music has a huge impact on our lives in ways that people before us would never be able to fathom. It has become a part of our memory, collectively and personally. We think in terms of where we were when we first heard a band like The Beatles or who we were dating when we first heard a particular song. Songs are interwoven with who we are. “Something about music urges us to engage with its larger context, beyond the piece of plastic it came on-it seems to be part of our genetic makeup that we can be so deeply moved by this art form. Music resonates in so many parts of the brain that we can’t conceive of it being an isolated thing,” David Byrne writes, “It’s whom you were with, how old you were, and what was happening that day.” A song comes on the radio and I am immediately remembering a certain summer when I was dating a specific girl and what she was wearing and where we were. This is especially true of songs that cause us to remember those we have lost and are no longer with us.
How Music Works covers a wide range of thought-provoking topics that draw the reader in and, more importantly, makes them think in new ways, not just about music, but all that shapes and is shaped by it.
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