Where Music Works

In the opening chapter of his book How Music Works, David Byrne makes a provocative and insightful observation. In a nutshell, he argues that the type of music composers and performers create depends largely on the type of space in which the music is to be played. The social purposes being served also play a role.

The simplest example of this is to imagine what high-energy funk would sound like if played in a cathedral. A cathedral is an extraordinarily reverberant space. As a result, the crisp rhythms of funk would turn into a dull roar. Trying to play funk in a cathedral would be all but pointless, because nobody could hear what you were doing.

Byrne gives lots of other examples. His underlying point is that our usual fantasy, in which the artist creates something based on an inner impulse toward personal expression, is exactly backwards. What the artist creates will be based, consciously or unconsciously, on how the work is to be delivered to audiences. A small jazz club has entirely different acoustics and social rituals than a concert hall, and neither has any resemblance to a pair of earbuds.

Once in a while I think about trying to take a bunch of my electronic music and turn it into a live concert experience so as to be able to share the music with a few people in small local clubs. One of the things that gives me pause, aside from the logistical difficulties of live performance, is that I’d have to rewrite everything. Long before I read Byrne’s exploration of this idea, I understood instinctively that the music I had recorded wouldn’t work in a club. To work in front of a live audience, every piece would need more energy, probably more repetition, and less reliance on subtleties that would be lost in the dull roar of club background noise.

I suspect I’m not alone. I suspect that many people who are writing and recording electronic music do so primarily for the acoustic and social space that they’re actually working in — namely, a small bedroom studio. If you’re doing dance mixes, of course, your considerations will be entirely different; dance music producers have a specific presentation in mind, which has nothing to do with the studio environment. That’s why music written for dance clubs sounds so deadly boring if you listen to a CD at home, or to an mp3 on headphones. The recording will make psychological sense to the listener only if the listener imagines herself in a club, with the lights flashing, bodies swaying, and everything else. If you’re not interested in the club experience, dance music fails.

One corollary of this idea is that there’s no such thing as “universal” music. A musical expression is always, at least implicitly, specific and limited. A second corollary is that if you know what type of listening experience your music is intended for, you’ll be less inclined to struggle with materials and techniques that don’t mesh well with that experience.

There’s nothing wrong with writing music for people to listen to by themselves while wearing headphones or sitting in front of a computer while an mp3 streams. That’s as valid an acoustic and social space as any other. If your computer’s speakers are crap, I’m not responsible for that, and I’m not going to craft my mixes to enhance your enjoyment. Go buy some better speakers, okay? Assuming you have decent speakers, my music will address you as a listener. You’ll hear various subtleties (of arrangement, intonation, or whatever) that would be utterly lost in a club environment. Because your intellect will probably be engaged in the process, I’ll try not to repeat anything so often that you get bored. I’m not likely to use huge washes of reverb to simulate a cathedral, because that would obscure the advantages of a close-in audio delivery system.

If I wanted to wrap myself in a mantle of philosophical dignity, I might suggest that this kind of music is about being in the present moment. Lots of people use their earbuds to listen to music that was intended for other spaces — stadiums, dance clubs, concert halls, or whatever. To do so involves a kind of mental abstraction. You’re removing yourself, experientially, from your actual surroundings and fantasizing about some other experience. Studio recordings of electronic music invite you to be here now.

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3 Responses to Where Music Works

  1. Tom Bitondo says:

    Hi Jim, I’ve been haunted by this very thought many times…that is, “where” the music I write will actually work.
    Not an easy one to answer, but one to surely merit much consideration, without doubt…

  2. Byrne’s is a good observation, but he’s hung up on a false dichotomy or master/servant kind of thinking. It’s not some unidirectional thing, but a dialog and chicken/egg thing. I have what’s called “aural hallucinations” of music, in which I can hear as plain as day music which “technically” isn’t being physically played, something I suspect is very common but socially unacceptable to admit. Where does that fit in with the essentially product/consumer scenario Byrne is describing?

  3. jazzmouse says:

    Reblogged this on Jazzmouse’s Blog and commented:
    If you’ve ever sat before a blank page of manuscript…

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