How Music Works (According To David Byrne)

In his new book, the artist investigates how technology in the 20th century (and in the present) has changed our way of listening

David Byrne has just published an interesting essay, “How Music Works”, in which he reflects on the impact of the use of technology on music and how it has changed our way of listening to and understanding what is (and what isn’t) music.

1. Eno introduces Byrne

It's only logical that a musician who's been experimenting with technology for half a century starts to play around with the ubiquitous and futurist iPad. I'm talking about Brian Eno, who has recently announced a new solo album on Warp, and the release of “Scape”, an application through which the rest of us mortals can play ambient music composer by manipulating coloured triangles. It's actually his third invention for the tactile gadget, alongside musician and software developer Peter Chilvers, after the also very arty “Bloom” (2008) and “Trope” (2009). In an interview with The Guardian, he said that what's always interested him (since the 60s) is using technology to make almost automatic music possible, music that doesn't need much input from a composer. Music capable of creating itself from a few commands. The result is an app that can be used almost like a video game (although Eno admits he has no idea what that gamification is everybody speaks of these days), ideal for creating the background music for our daily activities, such as reading.

In the interview, Eno says some very interesting things about the always complicated, but inevitable, relation between technology and music. And this column isn't about Eno, but about his friend and colleague, and collaborator in many projects, David Byrne. Byrne has just published the book “How Music Works”, a musical non-biography about his understanding of how music works “over many years of recording and performing”. In great part, it's a book that investigates the influence the development of tools and instruments has had on music history, from the earliest recording and reproduction techniques, via the manipulation and even emulation of sounds in the studios where a large part of popular music is written, to the present omnipresence of the mp3.

In the interview, Eno mentions at least two things worth thinking about. One is the feeling of threat that always comes with technological advances. The mere mention of the existence of an application to compose music will have many musicians frowning. But “It happened with synthesizers, on quite a formal level when string synthesizers first existed. The musicians unions tried to insist that they would never be used because they replaced string players, which of course they didn't. String players have never had more work!”

"A large part of the audience will be frustrated because the band they're watching doesn't reproduce most of the tricks and sounds generated in the studio"

Eno's other point is almost philosophical, and it's also one of the most interesting conflicts Byrne touches on in “How Music Works”. The conflict is based on two almost opposed ways of understanding music. One emphasises its interpretation, i.e. it sees music as something ephemeral, only existing for the one who plays it and the one who hears it when it's performed, as it goes up in the air after that. That would include almost every musical manifestation anterior to the appearance of recording systems: primitive rituals, composition for churches, or jazz improvisation sessions. The other way to understand music is linking it to the history of sonic recordings: tapes, vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, mp3. That's the predominant vision today, where even live shows are supposed to sound like studio recordings. Think of a concert: a large part of the audience will be frustrated because the band they're watching doesn't reproduce most of the tricks and sounds generated in the studio.

Eno's vision on that duality between recorded and performed music is, of course, an artist's vision: “In the 1960s when the recording studio suddenly really took off as a tool, it was the kids from art school who knew how to use it, not the kids from music school. Music students were all stuck in the notion of music as performance, ephemeral. Whereas for art students, music as painting? They knew how to do that.” According to Eno, “Once music ceases to be ephemeral – always disappearing – and becomes instead material… it leaves the condition of traditional music and enters the condition of painting. It becomes a painting, existing as material in space, not immaterial in time.”

Which is a splendid starting point to talk about Byrne.

2. Live music vs recorded music

Byrne and his Talking Heads, we have to remember, also came from an art school environment. As Simon Reynolds states in the encyclopaedic “Rip It Up and Start Again. Postpunk 1978-1984”, they were the opposite of the Ramones. Initially, Byrne was more interested in the film and experimental scenes of New York than in punk, and he always underlined the “anorexic” sound with a distinctive “subtle funk groove”, and Talking Heads' clean image. On stage, dressed “street clothes”, Byrne sung “passionately but unaffected”. “How Music Works” is written without any embellishments as well, with a cerebral approach to the music, almost like a scientist, but with passion. As he says in the prologue, explaining the title of his book, How music works, or doesn´t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when your hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works –if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish- but what it is.

Byrne, who claims he decided to write this book thanks to the enthusiasm of Dave Eggers, is all heart, memories and ears here: “Music can get us through difficult patches in our lives by changing no only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about everything outside ourselves. It’s powerful stuff. And he speaks with the respect and wonder of someone who doesn't yet understand how and where it comes from. As Eno remembers in Musician magazine, on one occasion, Byrne said to him: “Sometimes I write something that I really can't understand, and that's what excites me.” Talking Heads' “psychedelic funk” is really strange, and Byrne and Eno boasted a “color-saturated quality”, according to Reynolds. Together, they embarked on a series of studio experiments that were often impossible to reproduce on stage. That's the first stop on this trip.

Time jump. The legendary CBGB's in the 70s, and the gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages have something in common: they were built with reverberation in mind, how the ceiling and walls could offer “acoustic reflections”, like sound mirrors. And in a way, in their turn, both spaces conditioned not only how the music sounded in there, but also the way later composers would write their pieces with the place where they would be performed and heard in mind. That is, without a doubt, another kind of “technology” that has been of influence on the evolution of two completely different kinds of music.

"The band structures would change according to their limitations when it comes to being heard when there weren't any speaker boxes available"

Another example of music adapting to the medium was jazz: halfway through the 20th century, jazz was played in concert halls, in the midst of the racket that is a crowd expressing itself dancing. Jazz as a kind of “spiritual dance music” that would have sounded terrible in any cathedral, Byrne jokingly says. Before amps and microphones entered our lives, sound problems were solved by the choice of instruments and their position on stage, one in front of the other (“Banjos were louder than acoustic guitars, and trumpets were nice and loud, too”). Even the band structures would change according to their limitations when it comes to being heard when there weren't any speaker boxes available. " Likewise, he writes, country music, blues, Latin music and rock and roll were music to dance to originally, and they should sound loud enough to be heard over the noise. Recorded music and amplification changed all that."

Which is completely the opposite of classical music, by the way. Byrne quotes the influential Alex Ross (who has recently published another essential essay, “Listen to This”) to remind us that in classical music, the audience is sitting still in their seats, and they're not allowed to shout, eat or chat during performance. According to Ross, it's been like that since 1900, “ Nowadays, if someone’s phone rings or a person so much as whispers to their neighbour during a classical concert, it could stop the whole show.” But returning to our story: aware of the fact that every detail would be heard by a silent audience, composers could write almost quiet pieces, completely opposite to jazz bands. “Much of twentieth-century classical music could only work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces,” says Byrne, who in this case considers that the audience' fun has been sacrificed in an attempt to redefine the social parameters of the concert venues, thus coming to a certain “ masochism” on the audience's part. And he goes a little bit further, when he says that “ serious music [also including the kind of jazz played like chamber music], in this way of thinking, is only absorbed and consumed above the neck. The regions below the neck are socially and morally suspect.”

"Microphones revolutionised the way of singing and playing"

With the arrival of recorded music in 1878, the range of places where music could be listened to widened and, simply, “ just as photography changed the way we see, recording technology changed the way we hear.” With music now enjoyable in a living room at a variable volume, musicians also adatped to the new technology. Microphones revolutionised the way of singing and playing. “ Singers no longer had to have great lungs to be successful. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were pioneers when it came to singing to the microphone.” And Chet Baker and João Gilberto “re whispering like a lover, right into your ear, getting completely inside your head,” says Byrne. “ It might not seem that radical now, but crooning was a new kind of singing back then. It wouldn’t have worked without a microphone.

He gives many more examples of how technology changed the way people listen to and write music. “ I’d argue that contemporary hip-hop is written (or at least the music is) to be heard in cars,” with giant speaker boxes, which forced a kind of composition marked by the bass and vocal parts. And definitely the Walkman (1979), and now the iPod, which don't only provide our lives with a soundtrack (“ aestheticize urban space”), as if we were in a film, with its high and low points and transitions, but also allow us to listen without distraction (like one of those classical music concerts where everybody is quiet) to “ a million tiny details. You can hear the singer’s breath intake, their fingers on a guitar string.” More examples: the cinemas and their monstruous sound systems are ideal to listen to the new Wagners and Schönbergs: John William in “Star Wars”, and Bernard Herrmann n “Psycho”, respectively. According to Byrne, cinemas are practically the only places where pieces like that can be fully appreciated.

3. Analogue vs digital

Byrne uses another very graphic example to illustrate what sets music apart from other ways of expression, such as literature. “ Imagine, as composer Milton Babbitt did, that you could only experienced a book by going to a reading, or by reading the text off a screen that displayed it only briefly before disappearing. I suspect that if that were the way we received literature, then writers (and readers) would work harder to hold our attention. They would avoid getting too complicated, and they would strive mightily to create a memorable experience. Music did not get more compositionally sophisticated when it started being recorded, but I would argue that it did get texturally more complex. Perhaps written literature changed, too, as it became widespread –maybe it too evolved to be more textural (more about mood, technical virtuosity, and intellectual complexity than merely about telling a story).”

The famous Edison cylinders, at the end of the 19th century, were the first commercial way to record and reproduce sound, although, for Byrne, it was the Diamond Discs, from 1912 on, that were “ an early example of the son-to-be-common phenomenon of live music trying to imitate the sound of recordings.” According to him, there were tours all over the United States at the time to show what those records could do. It would go as follows: a singer would sing a song on a stage next to a player with a Diamond Disc containing the same song performed by that same singer. At one point, in the dark, the sound would be switched from the live singer to the record, and the audience would have to hear there was no difference between one and the other. Or rather, they would have to guess which was the live singer and which was the record playing. Again, it becomes almost philosophical: “ Should a recording endeavour to render reality as faithfully as possible, with no additions, coloration, or interference? Or are the inherent sonic biases and innate qualities of recording an art unto itself? This debate has not confined itself to sound recording. Film and other media are sometimes discussed with regard to their “accuracy”, their ability to capture and reproduce what is true.

"With the popularisation of early technologies for reproducing music at home, phonographs, gramophones, opposing books and essays also arose. Is the fear of the unknown"

Should we consider recordings from other periods as a faithful reflection of the music of the day? Careful, because maybe not. According to Byrne, with the appearance of the first recording systems, again, many jazz bands found themselves obliged to change the way they played their instruments in order to solve (new) technical limitations and adapt to the (new) medium. Anything as long as those recordings worked. So double basses were replaced by tubas and the drums were cut back: better not to play the double bass and the drum. “ Musicians in other towns, hearing what these drummers and bass/tuba player were doing on the recordings, sometimes assumed that that was how the music was supposed to be played, and they began to copy those adaptations that had initially been made solely to accommodate the limitations of the technology”. In this case, it seems that recordings aren’t entirely reliable. In others, such as that of Alan Lomax, who over the course of his life recorded an impressive body of American and European popular songs, technology nevertheless “could be a means by which these invisible people could be given a voice”, according to Byrne, for whom “music continues to be an oral (and physical) tradition, handed down from one person to another” and “ when those older players are gone, the traditions (and techniques) will be lost if their knowledge is not passed on directly. History and culture can’t really be preserved by technology alone”.

And always there lurking in the background is the fear of the unknown. With the popularisation of early technologies for reproducing music at home, phonographs, gramophones, and “ talking machines”, opposing books and essays also arose, such as The Menace Of Mechanical Music (1906), which complained of “ a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste… in this twentieth century come these talking and playing machines that offer to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders and all manner of revolving things”. In “Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music” (2004), the author, Mark Katz, quotes essayist Orlo Williams, who in 1923 compared the activity of listening to music “ unaccompanied” at home with a vice like “ sniffing cocaine or emptying a bottle of whisky”. Listening to music without being in the presence of others, what bad taste! It all got worse with the arrival of the radio. The music sounded even louder! At live performances people asked for them to sound “ more like the radio”!

"Cassette culture is indispensable for understanding the activity of the early labels to arise after punk in Europe"

In general, Byrne reviews all of the analogue and digital recording systems that were popularised over the course of the 20th century, and how they have influenced musicians, listeners, producers, and styles. Some heavyweights, such as Bing Crosby or pianist Glenn Gould, could even breathe easier thanks to these recording mechanisms. Crosby was tired of having to perform every day on the radio and wanted more time to play golf. Gould thought that recording on magnetic tapes would allow him to attain a certain level of perfection, the perfect performance, by editing, cutting and splicing together the best fragments of his own performances. In 1948 the LP arrived (their creator, Howard H. Scott, died recently) and in 1963, cassettes, which gave music not only mobility, but also freedom in recording. “ People began to make tapes of themselves singing for Grandma, they copied their favourite songs from their LP collections, they recorded radio programs” and all sorts of amateur music, says Byrne. Of course, the industry soon launched its usual message, that pop slogan “Home taping is killing music” that has been echoed with the arrival of CD and mp3 recordings.

The important thing about cassettes, according to Byrne, is that besides spreading knowledge of artists and musical styles to every corner of the world (“ I found out about a lot of artists and whole styles of music through the cassettes given to me by my friends, and I ended up buying more LPs as a result”, he confesses), is that “whole genres of music thrived as a result of cassettes. Punk bands that couldn’t get a record deal resorted to churning out copies of homemade tapes and selling them at shows or by mail order”. As Andrés Noarbe, former member of Aviador Dro and an indie pioneer in Spain, cassette culture is indispensable for understanding the activity of the early European labels to arise after punk in Europe, influenced by self-management and do-it-yourself.

4. Cut and paste, something is left

Another great technological revolution applied to music could be summarised by saying that a composer no longer even needs musicians to play with. Computers allow a single person to play, record, and reproduce almost anything—whether “ expressiveness” is lost in the process is something else. In the middle of the 20th century, Les Paul invented multi-track recording, becoming the “ a virtual one-man band”. The Beatles adapted and took the utmost advantage of this technique as few others have. DJs as well, who with the arrival of maxi singles (1976) began to create music aimed at the dance floor (intended to be listened to in a very specific way: at really high volume, with large speakers, and almost always under the effect of drugs) using fragments of music created by others, which ended up giving rise, among other things, to the first hip hop. And all of this to the horror of rock purists, who both then and today have tended to evaluate music according to such concepts as the sacredness of authorship, virtuosity or “authenticity” and originality. Music played by machines? That isn’t music, and blah, blah, blah.

Byrne is brave, and in “How Music Works” he takes the bull by the horns with the issue of the digitalisation of music. With the jump from analogue to digital, the arrival of the CD and mp3 and the conversion of music into data, into strings of ones and zeros—has something been lost? The quality of the sound is supposed to be what has guided the history of recorded music, from Edison’s cylinders to LPs and cassettes. “ We were told that CDs would last forever and sound squeaky clean, but they really don’t sound as good as LPs, and the jury is out regarding their durability. The spectrum of sound on analogue mediums has an infinite number of gradations, whereas in the digital world everything is sliced into a finite number of slivers. Slivers and bits might fool the ear into believing that they represent a continuous audio spectrum, but by nature they are still ones and zeros; steps rather than a smooth slope. MP3? They may be the most convenient medium so far, but I can’t help thinking that the psychoacoustic trickery used to develop them –the ability to cause the mind to think and feel that all the musical information is there when in reality a huge percentage has been removed- is a continuation of this trend in which we are seduced by convenience. It’s music in pill form, it delivers vitamins, it does the job, but something is missing”.

"The sound quality was atrocious, but that tiny sound was communicating a wealth of information"

The quality of the sound shouldn’t be the only way of measuring. “ I first heard rock, pop, and soul songs on a crappy-sounding transistor radio, and they changed my life completely. The sound quality was atrocious, but that tiny sound was communicating a wealth of information. Though it was an audio transmission that carried the news, it was the social and cultural message embedded in the music that electrified me as much as the sound did. Those extra-musical components that got carried along with the music didn’t demand a high-resolution signal– good enough was good enough”. Today, he points out, you can make out the use of Akai, Pro Tools or Logic, of digital recording techniques and composition based on sampling “ in most pop music written in the last twenty years”. And notice that he compares it with Microsoft’s Powerpoint, a program that requires the information be simplified so much that nuances have no place in it. It’s not that these nuances no longer exist, or that they are no longer discussed: we simply decide that it’s better not to include them in the presentation so that it will work better, so that it will be more successful visually.

In the same way, the patterns of music-editing software can be made out in songs, as if we were seeing their interface on a screen, all working “ with metronomic accuracy” with a “ facile perfection that’s gotten obvious, ubiquitous and ultimately boring. Another example of Byrne’s: Gainsbourg’s songs frequently consisted of a riff played over and over, but it never sounded like a loop. “ Somehow you could sense that it had been played over and over, not cloned”. For years now, the refinement and mastery of the cut-and-paste has led DJs, mixers and hip hop artists to build their songs from digital samples of riffs and beats taken from other recordings. “ Some artists lifted entire hooks and choruses form pop songs and used them like a knowing reference or quote (P. Diddy does it a lot, as does Kanye West)”.

The final stop on Byrne’s journey is the studio, the real possibility of setting up a studio in your bedroom and “ simulating a live performance of musicians in the most traditional sense”. Which leads us back to the theme that runs throughout “How Music Works” and, by extension, throughout this very long column: how music has changed forever with recording systems. Byrne spends an entire chapter talking about his experience in the studio, something that also implies the use of technology, and how it ends up affecting the music, the importance of producers, sound engineers, and technicians in how music and styles have developed. This is a part of the book with more personal than technical content, full of anecdotes from his recordings with Talking Heads or with Eno, with Brazilian Tom Zé in Salvador de Bahia or with the duo of London DJs X-Press-2 via internet, without ever seeing each other face to face. Here Byrne talks about the palette of sounds that he managed to create with Eno that cannot be reproduced live, about the influence of world music, soundtracks, or about his obsession with managing to record what he calls “ traditional music of an invented culture”. Byrne’s fans will enjoy this part. I should really be on my way. There’s much more in this book.

I will wrap up with a pearl that Byrne lets drop offhandedly in the middle of the book, which would force us to rethink many things if we were to analyse it in-depth. We have wrapped our lives in music thanks to the Walkman and the iPod. We listen to music while cooking, running, studying, or reading. But we find the music that accompanies us in shopping malls, on public transport, in restaurants and bars intrusive. Are the ringtones that accompany us all day long music? Is that little tune that welcomes us when we turn on the computer music? Are those five seconds of “ short, mysterious, ascending” sound that mark the end of each scene on the television series “Lost” music? After making its way through cylinders, cassettes, CDs and files, now, “ For me, music is becoming dematerialized, a state that is more truthful to its nature [that ephemeral nature that he mentioned to us in the beginning], I suspect. Technology has brought us full circle”.

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