Wednesday, 10 April 2013

How Music Works

Well, it’s spring and that means snow…oh, and the return of Pop Pornography in the shape of prime time Karaoke, The Voice.
As (both) my regular readers will know, I made my views on this glitzy garbage known first time round and I have little to add now.

I’ve just started reading an extraordinary book by David Byrne called ‘How Music Works’. And when I say extraordinary, I mean it.

I can’t recommend this collection of essays highly enough to all of you – all of us – involved in the creative process. Although it’s an easy read – the ten chapters are really stand-alone essays covering different aspects of music – the content is so thought provoking that the ideas stay with you, feed your mind and plant seeds that grow and grow and grow. This truly is ‘baby bio’ for any musician’s brain.

Whether you like Byrne and/or Talking Heads or not, the man is a great communicator and paints such a graphic picture about music, technology, the creative process and the music business that everyone involved in our industry, from absolute beginners to grizzled old cynics like me, can learn a huge amount.

For those involved in recording and production, chapters such as…
Technology Shapes Music; Analogue
Technology Shapes Music; Digital
In The Recording Studio
Business and Finances
aught to be essential reading,. Indeed, the thousands of music technology and recording courses up and down the country should put How Music Works on the curriculum immediately. They won’t because most don’t know their recording arse from their musical elbow…but therein lies another bugbear of mine.

The contrast between the creativity of Byrne and the bland manufactured vacuum that is ‘The Voice’ could not be starker; it is the difference between a musician and a mimic. Although not a biographical work, Byrne’s enthusiasm for all forms of music shines through as he describes his lifelong love of and search for emotion through sound from every continent and culture. And his explanation of his personal creative process is enlightening. Never satisfied with a conventional approach to writing – music or lyrics – recording or even releasing his work, Byrne strives constantly to push his art to the limit, to find new ways of expressing himself and explore the possibilities of technology. Standing in front of a microphone and singing has as much to do with his music as lacing up boots has for a mountaineer; both are essential but tiny parts of a larger process.

Although only part way into the book, I’ve already learned a lot. For example, like most of you I assumed that the classic Talking Heads albums were children of their time (the late 1970s/early 1980s), recorded at huge cost over months in top class studios. Not a bit of it. Indeed, Byrne, his fellow band members and Brian Eno, the producer, worked in a way that anticipated many of today’s artists, demoing material on Tascam portastudios or Teac four track machines, then rehearsing and laying down backing tracks in bass player Tina Weymouth’s loft apartment before mixing in the studio. Even where the band did record in a conventional studio, they worked quickly and, at Brian Eno’s suggestion, played together in the live room rather than relying upon acoustic separation, isolation and overdubs as was the production vogue back then. But there was more…

Talking Heads ‘Remain In Light’ changed the way I heard and made music. It was, and is, a quite extraordinary album that shattered convention when it was released. It was the first rock album I heard that relied upon groove to define the songs in a way that even the great Funk projects of the time didn’t quite manage. I guess I’d always taken the album for granted, as a natural progression from a talented and adventurous band. But Byrne’s description of the process that led to the tracks has made me reassess my assumptions.

The band set out quite deliberately to redefine song structure and work in a unique way, starting with a collection of rhythmic grooves without chord changes or conventional structures and then adding textures and finally Byrne’s incredible melodies and lyrics. What is of relevance to my present waffle is the fact that these songs could not have existed without recording technology – the songs relied upon tracking and overdubbing , chopping and editing (on tape of course – it’s easier now) and then sophisticated texturing and mixing in the studio. But this was not an expensive process. As I said earlier, the grooves were cut in the bass player’s loft apartment, Byrne then worked with a stereo recording to experiment with melodies, structures, textures and lyrics and modest studio costs only really kicked in during the later stages of dubbing and mixing. The greatness of what is, to me, one of the seminal albums of the last thirty years lay in the talent and creativity of those involved, not big budgets and glitzy production values.

If I’m trying to make a point, it’s that today’s musicians, producers and record companies appear to have lost the desire to experiment and push creative boundaries. We seem to live in an age where the ‘artist’ requires (or demands?) expensive equipment, production teams and sophisticated technology to express him or herself. It is almost as if there is an assumption that without such trappings, recordings cannot exist. And the result? A decade of bland recorded sterility, lacking or maybe even overwhelming the creative spirit.

Are The Voice and X Factor a cause or a symptom of the stifling of talent? Well, maybe both. Because firstly they present ‘music’ as a soulless, homogenised product – the result of a carefully contrived and expensive production manipulated by show business spivs - and secondly they promise a short cut to popular acclaim. These shows suggest that the route to making a recording career can be from warbling in the bath via a television talent show to massive budget recording sessions and international promotion over the course of a few months – your milkman can easily become the next Elvis Presley overnight.

Do we get what we deserve? Maybe. Maybe we don’t search hard enough for that rare, true talent that still exists and if we glimpse it, perhaps we don’t appreciate it sufficiently and support it through the trials and tribulations of the early years of development. Indeed, we offer loud and usually false praise for every vague talent that comes along rather than allowing it to mature and develop a unique identity before shivering in the spotlight of critical appraisal. Everybody wants to cash in quick – ‘Money, money, money’ (to quote one of the ‘mentors’ on The Voice) – rather than nurture and allow the creative buds to slowly bloom.

But all is not doom and gloom. It never is. There will always be truly talented musicians ploughing an individual furrow in bedrooms, private studios, backroom bars or sweaty gigs around the country. I know many young engineers and producers pushing their limited technology to unexpected limits and digging new furrows in the tired fields of our industry. But what do they do with the results? Again, Byrne offers answers by examining different ways to release and distribute music, and invaluable advice about retaining rights and licensing where appropriate.

Look – if you haven’t ever bought or read a book in your life, break the habit and pick up a copy of ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne. If you are in any way involved with recording, writing or making music, you’ll not merely enjoy it, but you’ll learn so much; this book will stay with you forever. And for the cost of a couple of takeaway Pizzas, you can feed your soul for years.

Oh, and if possible, please order it from your local bookshop rather than those tax-dodging scumbags at Amazon.

David Byrne – How Music Works…published by McSweeney’s

The Eccentric Blog… reproduced in conjunction with

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