We’d like to imagine that David Byrne contorted his face into a wild grimace, and that while letting out an ear-splitting scream, he started to form the chords which ended up immortalised in that timeless hit. But that’s not how it was. He says that’s not how it is. That idealised image of the “rock and roll singer possessed by passion and his demons” differs completely from the usual creation process.
The Scottish musician thinks that when it comes to artistic creation, passion plays a secondary role. What’s more important is the context, and even without knowing it, “unconsciously and instinctively, we create things according to pre-existing formats.”
This is how the lead singer of Talking Heads begins his book, his guide, his encyclopaedia even, called How Music Works. “My perception of creation matured extremely slowly. This perception is that it is context which largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. This doesn’t sound too much like perception, but in reality it opposes the common belief which maintains that creativity comes from an emotion of passion or feelings which crop up; that creative angst will not compromise with commitments and only has to find an outlet in order to be heard, read, or seen.
Byrne believes that a creative work does not come from an individual and then go on to capture the audience. The musician thinks that actually it works in the opposite way. “We work backwards. Consciously or not, we create things that fit the public available to us,” he writes. “The same is true for other forms of art. Pictures are created which are displayed on and meant to fit in with the white walls of a gallery, in the same way as music is written which sounds good in a club or in a classical auditorium. In some way, the surroundings, platform and software are what ‘make’ art, music, or whatever it may be.”
The Scot believes that creativity is flexible and moulds to its surroundings. It happens in art and it happens in nature. That’s why birdsong varies according to habitat. “Birds who live on the forest floor developed deeper calls which don’t echo or become distorted by the terrain, as could happen with higher pitched sounds”, he writes. “Aquatic birds have calls which, unsurprisingly, are able to carry across the sounds of the water. And birds that live on prairies and plains, like the savannah sparrow, have warbling calls which can carry across great distances.”
Byrne argues. Location is paramount. “It seems as though creativity, whether it be birdsong, painting, or musical composition, is as stable as anything else. What’s really great (the emergence of a really extraordinary and memorable piece of art) seems to emerge when something perfectly fits its context.”
One of the most influential global voices in music, the online magazine Pitchfork, once said that to collaborate with Byrne all you needed to give him was a bag of Doritos. It was a fierce criticism of his desire to experiment. But the Scot didn’t care. He considers that, on the contrary, he is “quite fussy when it comes to choosing,” but, at the same time, he’s prepared to work “with people you wouldn’t expect.”
Collaboration is a vital part of the essence of music, and an aid to creativity.
“I risk disaster because a successful collaboration is enormously gratifying”, he writes in How Music Works. “I discovered very early on that collaboration is a vital part of the essence of music, and an aid to creativity”.
Byrne says that “musicians inevitably add things which hadn’t occurred to the composer, and from this you often get a very different result to what a musician working alone would come up with (…). Many composers write as part of a team: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller, Jobin and Da Moraes… (…). But often the division of work isn’t clear. Ideas go from one side to the other.
“Working as a team has its obvious advantages. Your weakest ideas can be corrected. My original concept for ‘Psycho Killer’ was to give it a paradoxical meaning and play it as a ballad, but when the other members joined the band, the song took on a more energetic approach which was successful with the public. It’s often possible that your inspiration comes from outside ideas.”
Art is often presented as something for everyone. But Byrne is critical of this affirmation. The musician says that, in reality, behind this widely-held view, there are often less democratic intentions. The exhibition of art, he assures, is very elitist.
“It is said that ‘quality’ pieces of art are timeless and universal. People like (20th century art critic) Clive Bell think that they would be meaningful in almost any context. David Hume, a Scottish Enlightenment Age philosopher, insisted that “there exists an invariable standard which has been shown to be universally satisfactory in any country or time period.” This implies that a great work of art should not, if it is truly great, be of its time or place. We should not know how, why, or when it was conceived, received, marketed, or sold. It floats freely from this prosaic world, sublime and ethereal,” writes Byrne.
He then goes on to condemn this idea, saying: “This is absolute nonsense. Few of the works of art which we now consider ‘timeless’ were originally considered so. John Cary points out that Shakespeare was not universally appreciated. Neither Voltaire nor Tolstoy held him in high esteem, and Darwin found him ‘intolerably insipid’. For many decades his work was mocked for being plain and common. The same could be said about a great painter like Vermeer, who only recently gained widespread appreciation. As a society we constantly change what we place value on.
This belief in the mystical and moral power of art can be deconstructed in a few minutes. The musician tells us that the artist Alex Melamid demonstrated this very well in a slideshow in which he showed photos of himself holding up reproductions of prestigious masterpieces, from artists like Van Gogh or Cézanne, to a group of villagers in Thailand.
“He was ironically proposing that contact with these ‘spiritual’ pieces of art would elevate these ‘barbarians’ and that the masterpieces could even have curative properties. It was hilarious, in part because Melamid kept a straight face the whole time, but the message is clear: Great works of art are not as innovative nor iconic as they are considered to be in the West”.