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Song and dance man: David Byrne

How Music Works – review.

How Music Works
David Byrne
Canongate, 347pp, £22

Back in the early 2000s, I used to go to see a Massachusetts-based power-pop band called the Pernice Brothers play each time they toured the UK. Their London shows were mostly at the Borderline, a small, Americana-themed venue in Soho with a capacity of about a couple hundred, and their fans – predominantly white men in their thirties wearing flannel shirts – would pack out the place and stand reverently in front of the stage while they performed. It wasn’t music to dance to; instead, the lead singer and songwriter, Joe Pernice, would whisper intimate stories about post-break-up sex and peeping Toms into the microphone, mainly to the stodgy accompaniment of guitars, bass and drums. Trust me, it was great.

One of the highlights of their set would be a cover version of “Please Mr Please”, a country song taken into the US top ten by Olivia Newton John in 1975. The lyrics are standard genre fare: “In the corner of the bar, there stands a jukebox/With the best of country music old and new.” In the chorus, “some button-pushing cowboy” walks over, inserts a quarter into the machine and makes a selection that evidently strikes an unwelcome chord with the narrator: “Please, Mr, please, don’t play B-17/It was our song, it was his song, but it’s over/ Please, Mr, please, if you know what I mean/I don’t ever wanna hear that song again.”

Heartbreaking stuff. But whose heart is being broken here? Why should such a formulaic story affect the listener, or even the singer? After all, the song was written by Bruce Welch and John Rostill of Cliff Richard’s band (!), to be sung by a female vocalist. The “I” can’t literally refer to Pernice’s love life: he was probably about six years old when it was first released.

Questions such as these rarely get much attention, with mainstream music writing still mired in that bogus, pre-modernist obsession with “authenticity” and personality. (Did you hear about Sharon van Etten’s latest album, Tramp? She was “without a home over much of its recording process”, one reviewer excitedly tells us.) Yet David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, ably tackles these issues and more in How Music Works – a partly autobiographical trawl through music history and theory that is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

Byrne’s central contention is that, far from being the “product of individual effort”, music is “something that emerges from a community”. He is sceptical about the conventional wisdom that “creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling”, and suggests that “genius”, in reality, appears when “a thing is perfectly suited to its context”.

The medieval composers of Europe, for example, wrote drone-based, modular music for the reverberant cathedrals they played in, where the long echoes wouldn’t allow for key changes or much rhythmic texture, while African music, often played outdoors in front of dancers, emphasises percussion to cut through the background noise. This aptness isn’t merely a utilitarian matching of function and form; rather, it is the intangible element that allows a work to be understood and appreciated.

It also helps makes a song, album or orchestral suite “emotionally resonant”. Byrne doesn’t deny that music is a powerful expressive medium – his own early forays into live performance were inspired by his search for “a way of reaching out and communicating”. However, he rightly explodes the hoary myth that this power is somehow derived from the innate qualities of the music alone. “Social, historical, economic and psychological forces influence what we respond to,” he writes, “just as much as the work itself. The arts don’t exist in isolation. And of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more than it is a thing.”

As drily academic as this precis may sound, Byrne’s prose style is at all times engaging, even in his digressions. (Birds in San Francisco have raised the pitch of their songs to be audible above the traffic apparently.) Moreover, at the heart of his thesis on the mechanics of music – how it is made; where it is heard; who pays for it – is an impassioned polemic on its “value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create”.

“High” culture, which translates in the minds of many to top-flight classical music and opera, receives a disproportionate amount of funding while grass-roots programmes to promote direct participation in music-making often fall by the wayside. Byrne argues: “By encouraging the creativity of amateurs, rather than telling them that they should passively accept the creativity of designated masters, we help build a social and cultural network.”

From projects in the Brazilian favelas to El Sistema in Venezuela, which, since 1975, has produced 200 youth orchestras and 330,000 players mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, such efforts to democratise music have changed lives “in ways that go far beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved by a specific composition”. By investigating how music works, Byrne shows us how best it can be used. We are all the richer for his effort.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.