Byrne on Performance

I am fascinated by what happens to people at public gatherings, such as concerts, in churches, political rallies, by the energy, the sense of community, and why this seems to be such an integral part of most civilisations.

David Byrne is also fascinated by the process of performance; in his book How Music Works he often states how his band Talking Heads were about performance rather than recording. Much of the music he seems drawn to and performs himself has a strong groove, it is for dancing, rather than for merely sitting and absorbing. This is something to think about:

“There’s something special about the communal nature of an audience at a live performance, the shared experience with other bodies in a room going through the same thing at the same time, that isn’t analogous to music heard through headphones. Often the very fact of a massive assembly of fans defines the experience as much as whatever it is they have come to see. It’s a social event, an affirmation of a community, and it’s also, in some small way. The surrender of the isolated individual to the feeling of belonging to a larger tribe. Many musicians make music influenced by this social aspect of performance; what we write is, in part, based on what the live experience of it might be. And the performing experience for the folks on stage is absolutely as moving as it is for the audience, so we’re writing in the anxious hope of generating a moment for ourselves as much as for the listener – it’s a two-way street. I love singing the songs I’ve written, especially in more recent performances, and part of the reason I decide to go out and play them live is to have that experience again. Evolutionary biologist Richard Prum proposes that birds don’t just sing to attract mates and to define their territory; they sometimes sing for the sheer joy of it. Like them, I have that pleasurable experience, and I seek out the opportunities for it. I don’t want to have it happen only once, in the recording studio, and then have that moment get packed away, as a memory. I want to relive it, as one can onstage, over and over. It’s a kind of glorious and surprising that the catharsis happens reliably, repeatedly, but it does.

There’s an obvious narcissistic pleasure in being on stage, the centre of attention. (Though some of us sing even when there’s no one there.) In musical performances one can sense that the person on stage is having a good time even if they’re singing a song about breaking up or being in a bad way. For an actor this would be anathema, it would destroy the illusion, but with singing one can have it both ways. As a singer, you can be transparent and reveal yourself on stage, in that moment, and at the same time be the person whose story is being told in the song. Not too many other kinds of performance allow that.”

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