With this post, I will elaborate upon an educational source, offering my own thoughts and questions for the reader to consider.
Specifically the interviews with David Byrne (15:13 – 26:51) and Es Devlin (26:53-39:00).
It’s probably best to listen first, then to read my commentary, and perhaps then to listen again.
David Byrne On “The Power of Spaces”
David Byrne is a founding member of Talking Heads and the author of How Music Works.
First topic: Context shapes music.
Byrne: “Do we all make things with a venue, a context in mind? . . . Creation doesn’t just spring whole out of somebody’s head. It’s influenced by all sorts of different factors all around them.”
Byrne: “The acoustics of those rooms really work best for some kinds of music, and it doesn’t work that well for other kinds of music. . . There will be a kind of evolutionary process where the ones that don’t work that well in that room will get weeded out, and you won’t hear much of that there. And you’ll hear more and more of the stuff that works well acoustically in that room.”
In Northern Virginia, where I make a living off of musicianship, musicians are paid to perform primarily at wineries, breweries, and restaurants. There are occasional venue shows, but those don’t pay nearly as well as the other gigs. Small, acoustic performers fit best within this context, and so folks who do something other than small, acoustic shows don’t often get booked.
I was in a big psychelic rock band and had to leave despite a growing fan base because the local venue environment could not support us. We started in-fighting about necessary sacrifices we’d have to make to get to a point where the band could actually be sustainable. After that, I tried heavier, ambient rock solo shows using an electric guitar and board of pedals, but that style didn’t fit within the context of wineries and restaurants either. And so I learned to lean more heavily upon – and eventually expand – the sultry folk side of my music.
My partner, Tanner Carlton, often discusses with me the sounds of cities (or – in our case – regions). He and his brother, Mason, own a small local label called Rixey that is trying to document the sound of our region, which is primarily comprised of Culpeper County and Fauquier County in Virginia. We’ve noticed that musicians who get paid often end up catering to the country, folk, and southern rock genre clouds. Tan describes the sound as “comfortable, easy listening, sonically pleasing (not jarring).” Even musicians outside of that sound learn toward it, creating a sonic flavor of sorts for our region.
Food for thought
- What’s your local environment like for performing?
- How does that context influence the collective sound of musicians in your area?
- Do you personally write music with recording, performing, or both in mind? How does that context shape your writing?
Second topic: Impact of the pandemic upon musicians’ creative processes.
Interviewer, Manoush Zomorodi: “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 fellow musicians?”
Byrne: “To be honest, I don’t know. I mean, occassionally during this period, I’m writing words and 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 a lot of it is just missing for me. I have trouble connecting with it when there’s no audience there. An audience seems so much a part of the performing experience.”
I went five months without performing due to the pandemic and social distancing. During that time, I ended up doing what Byrne was talking about: writing and demoing (while working to successfully promote music I had prepared to release, despite the obstacles).
The first songs I wrote during this time were for an audience – tailored to the sound of my region, optimistic, simple, and palatable. As isolation progressed, I wrote more for myself – working through complicated concepts and challenging myself to write within a set of parameters I designed to stretch and grow my skillset. Rather than writing to perform immediately, I wrote to experiment and explore through the demo process.
Food for thought
- If you were used to gigging and then suddenly could not, then how did the new limitations impact your creative process?
- Did you intend to use this time of isolation to write and record? If so, were you able to follow through with your plans?
- Some folks work best with a deadline, and I’ve thought that perhaps the unknowns of when and how shows and tours will be accessible again has deterred those folks. Thoughts?
Es Devlin on “The Power Of Spaces”
Es Devlin is an artist and stage designer known for large-scale performative sculptures and environments that fuse music, language, and light. Explore her work here.
First topic: Making space for sound to live.
Devlin: “If it’s a piece of music – that most muteable, that most evanescent of materials – music is made of breath and made of air and made of frequency and made of vibration – how do I capture that into something that’s concrete without killing it?”
I kept rewinding and replaying this section of the interview. Muteable, evanescent, breath, air, frequency, vibration . . . The delicacy of sound is part of the reason I love it so much. I mean, don’t those same words echo the fabric of spirit and soul? Don’t those same attributes describe what makes a being alive?
I think that’s one of the reasons recording deterred me for so long. In the words of Devlin, “How do I capture that into something that’s concrete without killing it?” A recording is less concrete than a sculpture, but it’s still cementing this moving, breathing art into something still.
Beyond just the recording of music, there’s the challenge of branding music – with cover art, promotional photos, music videos, adverts, etc. The question of capturing without killing returns.
Food for thought
- How are your recordings different from your live performances of those same songs? Do you prefer one of the presentations more than the other?
- Have you achieved a recording that truly captures the delicate, expressive essence of crafting music live and in-person? If so, how? If not, can you think of ways to work toward that goal?
- What are your opinions on live recordings?
- How have you handled the visual component of publishing music? Did you have to do it all yourself or were you able to consult and collaborate with visual artists?
- Do you feel that your art direction and promotional campaign honestly reflected the sounds you produced?
Second topic: Adapting to outdoor performance.
Devlin: “I think practically we’ll be making work outside sooner than we’ll be making work inside . . . Imagine our spaces that get used for gatherings and rituals and events and music and stories, but using outside a bit more. . . I think we’ll learn a lot by connecting a little bit more to the environment around us. . . I do think this is a time for really exploring what these new parameters drive us towards.”
I’ve played a lot of shows indoors and a lot of shows outdoors. Often, I’ll feel pressed to complicate my indoor performances. With eyes and ears directed toward me by four limiting walls, I’ll exaggerate the intricacies of expression and craftsmanship in an attempt to produce a living sound and experience – dynamic and breathing. Sometimes I walk off of the stage into an audience of gratitude and connection. Sometimes I walk off of the stage with a permanent cringe wrinkled up inside of me.
Outdoors, my challenge is not to produce a living sound and experience; the dynamic and breathing earthscape naturally does this with ease. Instead, I must compliment the life already buzzing around me. I must interact with a limitless space, painting kindly upon the air. I feel like the soloist for an orchestra of entertainers when settled beneath a living sky. I’ll allow more emptiness in the songs – long pauses to feature the ambient sounds. I’ll adapt my setlist to shifts in cloud coverage and warmth. I’ll sing to the view as much as to the people. I’ll weave myself into the fabric of the moment. Sometimes I walk off of the stage into an audience blissed out by the whole event. Sometimes I walk off and leave quietly knowing that the environment unintentionally upstaged me.
I agree with Devlin that we should be embracing the process of adapting to the new outdoor experience rather than lamenting the loss of our old setup. We’ll have to shift from that saturated, intense, self-dependent mindset to a mindset of complimenting and collaborating with the more expansive and complex performing environment of the living outdoors. Is this an opportunity for ego-death and cleansing rebirth?
That evolution that Byrne talked about will apply itself intensely during this shift. Musicians who expand their mind- and skill- sets will adapt to the new conditions. A handful of those will have chaos-induced breakthroughs and may even come out of this elevated beyond the prior curve of their progress. Other musicians won’t adapt, and they’ll slowly die out waiting for conditions to return to normal.
food for thought
- Do you consider interacting with indoor and outdoor spaces differently? If so, how are those performances different?
- Have you invested any social distancing time in growing your skillset and shifting your mindset? What have you prioritized learning? How do you hypothesize this will help you?
- Do you believe that certain styles of music sound better outdoors? If so, which styles? How can you lean toward those styles to develop your own sound and adapt to new performance environments?