David Byrne, How Music Works
Loved this. Cory Doctorow probably said it best in his review: “I could made good case for calling this How Art Works or even How Everything Works.” Much of the book reminded me of Byrne’s frequent collaborator, Brian Eno, as you can see in my bits of marginalia above.
All art is a result of context.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and “Genius—the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work—seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context.”
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 you 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…
Context largely determines what it written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen… This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180 [degrees] from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.
The implication is that great work should, if it is truly great, not be of its time or place. We should not be aware of how, why or when it was conceived, received, marketed, or sold. It floats free of this mundane world, transcendent and ethereal.
This is absolute nonsense. Few of the works we now think of as “timeless” were originally thought of that way…
All art is a collaboration.
Even in solitude, we collaborate with our influences and with our selves:
When we write, we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters, different parts of our brains and hearts. And then, when they’ve each had their say, we mentally switch hats, step back from accessing our myriad selves, and take a more distanced and critical view of what we’ve done. Don’t we always work by editing and structuring the outpouring of our many selves? Isn’t the end product the result of two or more sides of ourselves working with one another?
And ultimately, music is a collaboration between player and listener:
I’m beginning to think of the artist as someone who is adept at making devices that tap into our shared psychological make-up and that trigger the deeply moving parts we have in common.
Technology shapes art.
The microphones that recorded singers changed the way they sang and the way their instruments were played. 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.” They adjusted their vocal dynamics in ways that would have been unheard of earlier. 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.
Revealing how art works doesn’t diminish its value or magic.
Byrne speaks of one of his stage shows that he wanted to “show how everything was done and how it had been put together.” He wanted to acknowledge his influences: “I wanted to show my sources, not claim I invented everything.”
The magician would show how the trick was done and then do the trick, and my belief was that this transparency wouldn’t lessen the magic.
Amateurism is a good thing.
Genius is a kind of marketing device — modern Capitalism “tends toward the creation of passive consumers,” and that the idea that only professionals can make real music keeps amateurs from enjoying the act of making. “The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things.”
There is really no hierarchy in music—good musicians of any given style are no better or worse than good musicians of another. Players should be viewed as existing across a spectrum of styles and approaches, rather than being ranked. If you follow this reasoning to the end, then every musician is great, a virtuoso, a maestro, if only they could find the music that’s right for them, their personal slot on the spectrum.
Arts funding should be routed towards teaching students to make art, not just appreciate it.
Funding future creativity is a worthy investment. The dead guys won’t write more symphonies… Creativity is a renewable resource…
It’s more important that someone learn to make music, draw, photograph, write, or create in any form, regardless of the quality, than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol, or Bill Shakespeare.
Definitely will go in my top ten of 2012.
(Cover photo via Brain Pickings)