Last night I attended a free lecture by David Byrne at The Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. Aside from the obvious draw of seeing one of my music idols speak, I was primarily interested in the lecture based on the slated subject matter. For roughly a half hour, Byrne presented a video/audio lecture titled Creation in Reverse. The program looked at the ways that venue and context shape artistic creation. Based on his opening remarks, the event was a trial run for Byrne’s presentation. He mentioned that he was recently asked by TED, an organization that shares talks from thinkers on a variety of issues, to speak at one of their conferences. While I enjoyed the opportunity to hear Byrne’s insight into music history, I was underwhelmed by the methods and conclusions of his research.
Byrne’s lecture began with the claim that music is determined by context. “Creativity happens backwards,” he stated. In order to support this claim, Byrne surveyed a number of venues throughout history, noting how the spaces are musically unique. For example, Byrne noted that Bach was helped by cathedrals’ echoey space. Although Byrne began with the examples of New York’s CBGB and a hole-in-the-wall club called Tootsie, he essentially spoke about venues chronologically, from West African musicians to contemporary times. In each case he explained the space’s acoustic properties. When speaking about opera houses, he remarked that in the 20th century, audiences were encouraged to remain quiet throughout the performance when before they were often boisterous. From this, he concluded that artists playing in these adapted spaces created more dynamic pieces, presumably because attentive audiences were able to perceive the sonic changes. Continuing through to the present day, he made observations in regards to home stereo systems and MP3s. Byrne added additional support to his hypothesis by explaining that birds too adapt to their environment. Some, he noted, use compression in the sounds they make to communicate over distances.
First off, I believe that most of the people in attendance came to the event for David Byrne, the Talking Heads frontman and cultural icon, rather than David Byrne, the budding music academic. Certainly a near capacity crowd would not have gathered at a Brooklyn music venue for just any talk on musicology. This suspicion is also backed by the inane Q&A session that followed the lecture. Although some people asked intelligent and provocative questions based on the subject matter of Byrne’s lecture, most people drooled over being in his presence and made off-topic inquiries in regards to David Byrne, the bicycle advocate.
Brooklyn scenester gripes aside, I had substantive issues with Byrne’s methods and ideas. Essentially there was no empirical force behind Byrne’s assertions. Though he came across as knowledgeable as far as acoustic spaces are concerned, he gave no evidence to support that musicians consider venues, either consciously or unconsciously, when creating music. In the beginning of his talk he made the claim that music does not derive from artists “getting emotions off their chest”, rather it is “form then emotions.” Byrne never gave a warrant for this claim, and merely paraded a series of historical anecdotes to flesh out this view.
Random factoids about concert halls and clubs cannot be considered plausible empirical evidence. While some artists may consider their target venue when creating music, I believe that it is more likely, especially nowadays, that artists write music irrespective of context and then tailor their sound to a given venue. During the Q&A, I posed a question to David Byrne, asking whether music technology is rendering context based thinking obsolete. That is, when an artist posses the technology to easily create a sonic environment (i.e. using reverb, compression, panning, etc.) and the audience is none the wiser, how can one claim that venue based thinking still exists? Though I didn’t articulate myself as precisely as the aforementioned question, that was essentially what I asked. I brought up the example that many laptop artists do little to adapt their sound to venues. Furthermore, people still support these acts and artists like Girl Talk routinely sell out large venues. In response, Byrne joked that laptop artists who do not concern themselves with creating music based on venue should include backup dancers for their shows. I felt a little cheated by this response, and I still have many thoughts and concerns about his model of creation in reverse. I am curious what the response will be for Byrne’s TED lecture.