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During his four decades of making music, David Byrne has rarely shied away from a challenge. With this book he has taken on a whopper: to explain how music works practically, artistically, emotionally, financially. Byrne has clearly done his research, and peppers his theses with tidbits like how Beethoven’s ninth symphony allegedly dictated the length of CDs and how Bing Crosby’s love of golf boosted the development of audio recording equipment. The academic is cut with the anecdotal, and Byrne’s personal gripes: targets include Thomas Edison, vibrato in opera, and Beyoncé for rhyming ‘minute’ with ‘minute’ in Irreplaceable.

For all his candour, anyone hoping for Byrne to dish upon the reasons Talking Heads split up will be disappointed: one moment, they’re all playing happily together at CBGB; the next, it’s 2002 and he and X-Press 2 are number one in the US dance charts with Lazy. Fans ought to be appeased with so much insight into Byrne’s nonconformist approaches to music – for instance adding koala noises to his song Drugs and jogging in the studio to achieve breathless-sounding vocals – as well as the illustrations, such as Byrne’s doodle for his cartoonish square stage suit and the page from his notepad on which the lyrics to Once in a Lifetime took shape.

One of Byrne’s strongest subjects is collaboration – little surprise since over the years he has teamed up with a plethora of Brazilian and Cuban musicians, Twyla Tharp, Morcheeba, of course Brian Eno and most recently St Vincent. He’s less effective in his jumbled, repetitious consideration of analogue versus digital recording, perhaps because he appreciates the benefits and drawbacks of both. Unlike many musicians who experienced success during the heyday of major label indomitability, Byrne seems amenable to modern developments in technology and distribution, and is even excited by the opportunities for anyone to self-finance and independently release records. Throughout, the creative process is of central importance, along with the listener’s relationship with the music.

Though a little uneven, at its best How Music Works is richly informative and engagingly idiosyncratic – who else but Byrne would manage to juxtapose Glenn Gould with Milli Vanilli?

HELEN ZALTZMAN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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