David Byrne Offers Advice on How to Enjoy Music

What is it about place that makes music special? The rock star dissects what he enjoys about what he hears, from opera to jazz to radio hits

David Byrne, shown in his New York City office in 2009. (© Jason Nocito / Corbis Outline)

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But you have to be pretty diligent to follow all those trails, too. Most people, if they see it, read Zappa quoting Varese and just leave it at that.

That’s true! I can’t deny that. But this is how I did it. … You had to be pretty diligent about following all those leads and being curious and open-minded enough to find out. … It doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. That was an interesting process too, to find out that somebody might rave about something and you’ll get it and go “Ew, I don’t get this at all.”

You mention in the book that you’ve never been able to get into Bach or Mozart.

Yeah, that’s been [true] forever! … There were probably a ton of things where I thought, “I’m supposed to like this, I’m supposed to like this!”

And even though you have some harsh words for the amount of funding that goes into opera and classical music culture, you also name check a lot of today’s composers. That list includes John Adams, the composer of the opera Doctor Atomic, and his near-namesake, John Luther Adams, whose recent piece Iniksuit you report enjoying.

Just because I rule out Bach and Mozart doesn’t mean I rule out everything played on those instruments! … That’s going to be a contentious chapter, and I won’t claim to have gotten it all right.

It struck me that you were positioning funding for, say, music education, versus subsidies that allow people to buy cheap tickets at Lincoln Center or other urban arts venues. But one doesn’t have to exist at the expense of the other, right?

It’s a sense what I’m saying is unfair: They shouldn’t be in opposition. But … the school programs have just been gutted.

The way you talk about jazz is interesting, too, because here’s an American cultural invention that starts in a popular dance-hall context that can support itself commercially, and then moves to the halls of academe, where it finds some protection from the market.

Yes, it’s really… it’s an ever-evolving thing. For instance, jazz is a pretty good example. As I said – I don’t know if I was an adolescent, I might have been in college—I might have just been going to college when I saw [jazz musician] Roland Kirk at this thing. And you know, it was raucous, and there was drugs, and there was a show. It was the equivalent of a guitar player playing a guitar with his teeth: He would play two instruments at once. … It was show business. That wasn’t to take away from the music at all, but you realized that there was not … it wasn’t pure, like, stripped away. But all kinds of things could be thrown in here.


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