NONFICTION: "How Music Works," by David Byrne.

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2012 - 9:37 PM

A collection of essays by maestro David Byrne explains how music is created, written and appreciated.

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David Byrne.

Photo: Catalina Kulczar-Marin,

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Time magazine dubbed David Byrne rock's renaissance man in a 1986 cover story. After all, the Talking Heads rock star had become a film director, a composer for the stage, film and modern dance and an author of books. Since then, his résumé has expanded to include exhibited visual artist and photographer, designer of bicycle racks for New York City, founder of a world-music record label, host of his own Internet radio station and author of more books.

His new "How Music Works" may be his most ambitious book, but you'd probably not call him a writer. He's more of a thinker here or, as the Los Angeles Times once put it, a public intellectual.

In his preface, Byrne suggests that readers can skip around rather than read the chapters in order. He's never been a linear kind of a guy, and this is not a linear kind of book. "How Music Works" is a collection of essays, each of which could stand alone, about how music is conceived, presented and received. It deals with form, function, creativity, technology, performing, architecture, business. "How Music Works" would be an excellent college textbook for a 200-level course in a music department.

The Rock Hall of Famer, 60, takes a brainy approach to his subject, even though he doesn't necessarily develop his points as a scholar might. He's part amateur anthropologist, reporting on what he experienced in his travels to Bali, Japan and Brazil, tossing out his theories on making music, presenting theater and such. He's part grad student in history and social science, referencing quotes from scholarly works. He's part reporter, interviewing managers and record executives on how the finances work. And, at times, he's a bright and curious observer just thinking out loud, offering a mixture of thoughtful insight and the obvious.

Byrne is skillful at explaining recording technology and finances in layman's language. Mentioning some of his own experiences from time to time helps personalize the process. His discussion of the motivations behind songwriting is fascinating. "It's assumed that everything one utters or sings (or even plays) emerges from some autobiographical impulse," he writes. "Nonsense! We don't make music -- it makes us. Which is maybe the point of this whole book."

The most compelling parts of the book are when Byrne talks about his thinking when he was in Talking Heads or working on his still active solo career. (His latest endeavor, an album collaboration with St. Vincent, "Love This Giant," will be released this week, and they will kick off their national tour Saturday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.)

For example, he explains his own evolving wardrobe -- Amish look to glam rock to preppie to big-shouldered jackets to jumpsuits -- and the thoughts behind it. When in doubt in his solo career, he seems to prefer that he and his bandmates (and dancers) wear white because it's easier to be seen onstage.

Despite these glimpses into his own life and career, "How Music Works" should never be construed as a memoir (though there are historical photos and lyric sheets). It's just Byrne starting to make sense about the magic of music.

Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719

  • related content

  • HOW MUSIC WORKS by David Byrne

  • HOW MUSIC WORKS

    By: David Byrne.

    Publisher: McSweeney's, 352 pages, $32.

    Review: David Byrne is particularly interesting when discussing the motivations behind song writing and what was going on in his head when he was part of Talking Heads.

    Event: 6 p.m. Fri.David Byrne in conversation with Steve Seel, McNally Smith College of Music, St. Paul, $10.

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