Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne

The plush, white cover of David Byrne’s How Music Works (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2012) proclaims the book an amateur’s sweeping guide to an elevated art, like a classy handbook for avid cricket fans, democratic yet capable of explaining the most complex in layman’s terms. The simple computer volume logo that accompanies the title reinforces this impression. Byrne open his arms with his sweeping title, claiming to explain how all music works for everyone, and, to be fair, he puts on a good show.

Perhaps the book’s title should be instead "How Music Works (for Me),” considering how much time Byrne spend talking about his own experience making music. Several chapters focus almost completely on this. This memoir-style storytelling may be exactly what fans of Byrne’s and The Talking Heads’ music are looking for, but Byrne does not always manage to make explicit how his reminiscences tie to the book’s supposed theme. Though uncritical of himself (not that we would expect him to be critical), Byrne thankfully takes a path less egocentric and more utilitarian than many other memoirs.

Byrne in no way ignores the book’s title, however—he alternates memoir chapters with bigger picture explorations about musical context, technology shaping music, the business of music, amateur music making, and psychoacoustics—an impressive range of topics for one book. Within the chapter level, however, Byrne is a bit rambling and unfocused, at times oversimplifying or making sweeping gestures not quite supported by his facts. Despite the organizational problems, Byrne deftly and impressively summarizes a wide range of scholarly activity on music from antiquity to the present. He is obviously well read. He is fairly good at presenting an even-handed argument, making space for both sides of an issue even when he does not agree. Every once in a while (seemingly out of nowhere), Byrne will say something remarkably insightful and pithy, enough to justify reading the rest of the book.

The best part of How Music Works is the chapter on business and finance, an extension of Byrne’s 2007 Wired article. This informative chapter sheds light on the mysterious inner-workings of the business of music with personal examples in Byrne’s best attempt at tying his life to the book’s title. His chapter on amateur music making, though as uneven as the rest of the book, is also engaging, providing an interesting argument for the renewed funding of arts programs across the nation. In his excitement proclaiming the virtues of musical democratization and vilification of the passive consumer, however, he does seem to forget (in spite his very detailed description of CBGB's neighborhood) that some music is inextricably connected with drugs and crime.

Byrne’s book, rambling its merry way to its sudden ending, mostly fails to live up to the cover’s promise of secrets revealed. Many of his insights, however, definitely deserve a closer look. How Music Works would make an excellent blog (I know my favorite posts), but falls short of being a cohesive book. 

Did anyone else read the book? What did you think?

Vocab: memoir, CBGB

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