Events, Reviews

Review: David Byrne, Stories In High Fidelity

Amy Rose Spiegel :: Friday, February 5th, 2010 3:30 pm

David Byrne knows how to make buildings sing.  His 2008 installation, Playing the Building, was a study in transforming an enormous, historic ferry terminal into something of an instrument.  So when I saw that he would be giving a lecture about how venues and spaces shape how music is written, it definitely seemed worthwhile for a few reasons, first and foremost being that I am such an enormous fan that I, long ago, geekily coined the term “Byrneout” to refer to myself and others with similar ardor for the sprightly silver fox.  On a less fanatical note, he clearly knows a lot about how music and space interact and shape each other, so the talk would probably be engaging and authoritative (spoiler alert: it was!).

The lecture was part of the Stories In High Fidelity series, which had apparently been on hiatus for some time (it appears that its website hasn’t been updated since late 2008).  The purpose of the evening was to have several acts, including musical performances, readings, live drawing, and Byrne’s lecture, combine storytelling with music.

Some of the performances were exceptional, but the first was decidedly not included in this category.  ECHOecho seemed to be a bad musical theater troupe imitating a band.  Their manner was painfully practiced - every last word of banter between songs, every dumb dance move, and every smile seemed to be preordained and “perfected” beforehand.  If only they could have applied the same discipline to actually playing their too-cutesy music.  Every instrument sounded like it was playing a different song from the others at all times, and the levels were severely off.  The lead guitarist eked out one awful solo for the whole performance.  It reminded me of this:

and that’s being a little kind.  The most offensive part was the fact that they kept making the same stupid joke over and over - boring bait-and-switches in the vein of “This is a sad song.  It’s called ‘Happy.’”  No, stop, you’re killing me, really.

Next up were the readings, which, for their part, were equally uproarious and intelligent.  Jason Gordon led the bunch with a remembrance of his ill-advised high-school audition for the Broadway production of Tommy and an actual eighth-grade book report of his about a current event - naturally, he chose a biography of Jim Morrison for the project.  At first, Gordon seemed very nervous.  He barely looked at the crowd and punctuated his “um”s with “uh”s while occasionally slipping in a word of material.  Fortunately, his writing was too good for the crowd to care much, and as he realized that the audience was really enthusiastic, he became clearer and more confident.

Alan Light followed with a piece about his son’s Beatlemania.  Apparently, his six-year-old son is an authority on the band, down to b-sides, set lists from obscure shows, et al.  It was interesting, but it made me kind of nervous for my own future - will I have to track down rare 7″s for my future spawn?  Now I’ll be even more pissed if I don’t have to after hearing this, to be honest.

Dan Kennedy was my favorite reader of the evening, with two short “vignettes” (his words) from a summer working at a record store, and then a killer piece about what Jon Bon Jovi is probably saying in his pre-show prayer circle (including asking God to take care of a kink with the merch sales).

And now we come to the main event: David Byrne’s “Creation In Reverse” audio/video/lecture presentation.  He spoke about how the space music is meant for deeply affects the way it is written.  He started by speaking about playing at CBGB and its similarity to a small country-music venue - both were receptive to intricate vocal and musical arrangements because of their size.  He explored African music played in the outdoors, European music meant for large spaces, cathedrals, headphones, and living rooms, illuminating what kind of music was common in each, and why.  My favorite part, though, was when he compared his findings to the biological phenomenon of birdcalls.  For example, birds lower to the ground in the forest will chirp in a lower frequency so that high pitches won’t bounce off the trees, and birds in the plains will emit insectlike, buzzing calls so that they carry further.  He closed the lecture by saying, “Humans like to sing as much as birds do.”  Swoon.

Singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins closed out the evening, with a special appearance by Byrne on her last song.  The woman has a seriously beautiful voice on her - alternately soaring and secretive, but always perfectly pitched.  She was accompanied by an illustrator, who drew interpretations of her songs as she sang them.  It was cool that she had no idea that another narrative was taking place on the projected screen of the images behind her - she would turn around and discover the work after each song.  The illustrations were simply drawn but evocative.  The crowd was enthralled.

So I guess I can’t post this review in good faith unless I recount the tale of speaking with Byrne afterward.  I looked forward to asking him more about the lecture, but after we said hello, I panicked.  Usually, I can maintain some level of poise around people whom I respect, but here I was with one of my greatest heroes…it was basically guaranteed that I would blow it, and I accepted that because, hey, I would get to say hello.  The conversation lasted for a few stuttered sentences (mine) and some gracious, well-mannered grins and responses (him) before I literally blurted “Oh, I’m so nervous,” and walked away.  Basically, what I gleaned from this conversation is that I’m a dithering loon.  Journalistic prowess, thy name is Amy Rose.

2 Responses to “Review: David Byrne, Stories In High Fidelity”
  1. hi. what song did David Byrne and Nicole Atkins close with? had to leave early. thanks!

    Posted by: e sweeney February 5th, 2010 at 6:00 pm
  2. You’re a true Byrne-out…o wait, “neeeevuhhmind, neeeevuhmind”

    Posted by: Chris February 5th, 2010 at 6:13 pm