David Byrne: How Do Spaces Shape The Music We Make?

Jul 24, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 11:03 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Power Of Spaces

David Byrne says "context has a huge effect on creativity." He draws on his time with Talking Heads, as well as Bach, Gregorian chant, even birds—to show how spaces affect the music we write and play.

About David Byrne

David Byrne is a musician, author, and interdisciplinary artist—best known for fronting the American rock band Talking Heads, one the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s. The group released three platinum albums and is featured on Rolling Stone's list, "100 Greatest Artists."

He has also written several books, including Bicycle Diaries, a journal of what he thought and experienced while cycling through the cities of the world. His 2012 book How Music Works expands on his TED Talk to imagine how music is shaped by its time and place.

In 2018 he released American Utopia—again partnering with Brian Eno. The album inspired the Broadway production David Byrne's American Utopia (2019 – ), which also featured songs from Talking Heads.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, the power of spaces, including one that had a huge impact on the history of American music.


ZOMORODI: It was a small venue on the Bowery in New York City where a lot of American legends got their start back in the '70s.


ZOMORODI: The space was CBGBs.


DAVID BYRNE: Is that it?

CBGBs was not all that different than a lot of other clubs, especially ones in New York. It was kind of long and sort of narrow, and the stage would be more or less at the far end. There was a bar and chairs and might have been a brick wall, as there sometimes is in New York. It's not that large of a place.


BYRNE: The name of this band is Talking Heads.


BYRNE: Thank you.

My name's David Byrne. I'm a musician and a performer.


BYRNE: This song is called "I'm Not In Love."


ZOMORODI: So CBGBs was where you ended up having your big breakthrough, and how much do you think that was because of the space itself?

BYRNE: At first, I did not have great ambitions for the group. I was writing some songs, and I thought, oh, let's audition. Let's play. Let's see what happens. Let's see if people like them.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) We are two strangers. We might never have met.

BYRNE: So we all started in these kind of small places, where lots of the nuance of what we were doing could be heard fairly accurately.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) But I'm not in love.

BYRNE: The vocals could be heard above the grinding guitars and smashing drums and ambient sounds of people talking and other activities.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Fall in love.

BYRNE: The music, the bands, the musicians - it works perfectly well in that context. And so you knew that if you wrote certain kinds of things, that would work, at least acoustically. You don't know whether an audience is going to like the song, but you know at least it'll be heard in the way that you intend it to be.

ZOMORODI: And I guess, because it was such a small space, you could immediately tell if you were connecting with the audience.

BYRNE: Yeah, you could look at the people's eyes. You could see their heads bobbing, which was just an amazing thing.


BYRNE: Thank you.


ZOMORODI: David Byrne continues his story from the TED stage.


BYRNE: Since then, I've played other places that are much nicer. I've played Carnegie Hall and places like that, and it's been very exciting. But I also noticed that sometimes the music that I had written, or was writing at the time, didn't sound all that great in some of those halls. We managed, but sometimes those halls didn't seem exactly suited to the music I was making or had made. So I asked myself, do I write stuff for specific rooms? Do I have a place, a venue, in mind when I write? Is that a kind of model for creativity? Do we all make things with a venue or context in mind?

ZOMORODI: So it sounds like over the course of your career, as you went from venue to venue, it kind of started to dawn on you how those spaces were changing your music.

BYRNE: Well, my realization was that creation doesn't just spring whole out of somebody's head. It's influenced by all sorts of different factors all around them. They're far from invisible, but they're not really acknowledged that much. Context has a huge effect on creativity, and the sound of the rooms we perform in, the acoustics of those rooms, really works best for some kinds of music, and it doesn't work that well for other kinds of music.

ZOMORODI: So in other words, like, a room is kind of a canvas for making music?

BYRNE: Exactly. And therefore, there will be a kind of evolutionary process where the ones that don't work that well in that room will get weeded out. You won't hear very much of that there, and you'll hear more and more of the stuff that works well acoustically in that room.


ZOMORODI: David says there are examples of how space has shaped the course of music everywhere. So, like, if you want to get a feel for Bach's approach to music-making, just walk into a Lutheran church.


BYRNE: The church where Bach's music was played was a lot smaller than the great Gothic cathedrals that had kind of gone before. And then he famously worked with a tuning system that allowed him to be a lot more pointillistic, wander the keyboard a lot more.


ZOMORODI: All those trills.

BYRNE: Yeah, all that stuff that would just turn into mush in a Gothic cathedral.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

BYRNE: Previous to that, like Gregorian chants and things like that, that music doesn't change key, so that if you're in a Gothic cathedral and one note reverberates, it's still in tune. All the reverberant notes are going to enhance the music that you're making. Bach must have realized that in the smaller place where he was playing and writing, he could start to move the composing and performing into different keys, and it wouldn't sonically clash with what he was doing. It gave him the opportunity for the music to change into something completely different, which is kind of where a lot of Western music has gone today. But other kinds of music still exist. It just took a parallel path.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I have to say, you've done a lot of research on this. You wrote a book charting how venues have shaped the evolution of music around the world. And so, I mean, I have to ask you a kind of odd question.

BYRNE: All right.

ZOMORODI: For my mother, who is an amateur violinist, and she plays a lot of chamber music, and she and her quartet pals have attempted to play quartet string music via Zoom, which was a total disaster.

BYRNE: Oh, my goodness, that's a shame. Yeah, so you kind of need to find an empty, large-ish, empty room that they can perform in and still be a little bit separated.

ZOMORODI: They need a living room, clearly.

BYRNE: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: She's not enjoying the music because she can't be in the right space, is what I've realized.

BYRNE: I can imagine. Those instruments, kind of chamber music, they benefit from a certain amount of reverberation to kind of enrich the sound of the instruments.

ZOMORODI: But maybe she should switch to music that was written purposefully for being played in the outdoors, like drumming. I mean, I don't know if she wants to become that, but, like, right?

BYRNE: (Laughter) Yes, it'd be nice to see that transition from violin to drums and percussion. But no, seriously, I could see that there are lots of things that work that way, like reels and fiddle music, where the playing is very rapid, and it's often done outdoors, too. You can have a much more rhythmic kind of string-playing, like cellos and violins and violas and things, much more rhythmic than what chamber music might normally be. And so the rhythm is kind of driving the stuff, rather than the richness of the harmonies.


BYRNE: You never know.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).


BYRNE: Is this a model for creation, this adaptation that we do? Does it happen anywhere else? Well, according to David Attenborough and some other people, birds do it, too.


BYRNE: Birds, like the Savannah sparrow, they tend to have a buzzing call.


BYRNE: A sound like this is the most energy-efficient and practical way to transmit their call across the fields and savannahs.


BYRNE: Other birds, like this tanager on the East Coast of the United States, where the forests are a little denser, has one kind of call.


BYRNE: And the tanager on the other side, on the West...


BYRNE: ...Has a different kind of call.


BYRNE: This was some of the most fascinating stuff that I came across. Birds in urban environments, for example, where there's all this background noise all the time - they'd evolved to alter their songs. They'd often gotten higher pitched and louder in order to be heard. So I think they're shouting all the time. Evolution favored the ones that were louder and that could sing at a higher pitch and be heard above all the traffic and everything else. And we're just hearing them now.


BYRNE: I remember going for a bike ride right after the beginning of the lockdown and just marveling with a friend at how much you could hear. There's birds everywhere.


BYRNE: The city is just filled with the sound of birds now.


BYRNE: Maybe they were there all the time, but we're sure aware of them now.


ZOMORODI: So can I just ask you - in this time of the pandemic and social distancing, how do you think that being home so much is going to affect the creative process for you and your fellow musicians?

BYRNE: Wow. To be honest, I don't know. I mean, occasionally, during this period, I'm writing words or lyrics. I'm kind of doing what musical work I can do solo, you know, like, editing music and demoing up songs and stuff like that. But other than that, a lot of it's just missing for me. I think it's great that people are doing it, but I have trouble connecting with it when there's no audience there. An audience seems so much a part of the performing experience.

ZOMORODI: I hear a real sadness in your voice as you talk about this.

BYRNE: Yes. In a way, I feel like recordings are one thing and a live performance is another thing. There's a big overlap, but they're not the same thing at all really. Maybe lose a little bit of the kind of super-duper clarity when you're listening to a live performance. But if you just want to hear kind of a pristine version of the song, then just put on the record.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Heaven, heaven is a place...

BYRNE: But there's another level of it that you don't get on a recording.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Nothing ever happens. Oh, heaven...

BYRNE: The connection between the performer and the audience, and the fact that you're there with a lot of other people - all those things that we kind of miss at the moment - they're key, I think, to the arts and to who we are as human beings.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Nothing ever happens.


ZOMORODI: That's David Byrne, founding member of the Talking Heads and author of "How Music Works." You can hear his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.