In the TED talk entitled “How architecture helped music evolve,” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Byrne tries to explain how venues and spaces have molded music from the early times of man all the way to the current digital age. Byrne is able to effectively comment on this due his status as an internationally known musician and the knowledge that he has played in several different venues. He uses this to his advantage to open the talk by commenting on probably his greatest known era, playing the legendary rock and roll club CBGB’s in the late 1970s. It’s a place deep in the heart of any rock and roll fan and Byrne describes how the room was for music. He states it was a “good sounding” room and its lack of reverb helped retain the qualities of the music performed. He then links it to another legendary venue, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. This broadens the scope of his opening statements to show that at that time period, even among musical differences, a good room can mean a lot to music and that for rock and country, you just had to play loud enough for people to notice. It’s an effective start because it’s what most people want to hear a rock start talk about, playing legendary venues at their peak.
Byrne then changes gears. He talks about playing “nicer” venues, concert halls but finds that his music didn’t sound great in those venues. So he turns the question on himself first and then to a larger issue. Is music created for a specific venue in mind? Byrne seems to think so as he traces the path of music. He says that tribal drums fit the needs for a loud sound in the open air of West Africa. The long flat tones of 15th century religious pieces fit the huge space of a gothic cathedral. Bach’s organ fugues fit smaller local churches. Royal salons fit Mozart’s more intricate pieces in the late 1700s. At the same time, operas became more and more bombast as audiences made the occasion a social event. The reflection of this was Wagner’s opera house, which was smaller but allowed for a larger orchestra. Then, a reversal happened. Concert halls became larger as the classes became larger. With more space, they had more reverb. Therefore, audiences now had to be quiet in order to hear the dynamics being introduced in music at that time.
Moving onto the arrival of modern popular music at the turn of the 20th century, Byrne explains that jazz bands were playing on riverboats and in clubs at this point and like back in the salon days of Mozart and heyday of opera, would have to play over noisy audiences. He also links opera to jazz in that in opera, people would call for an encore on the spot, in the early days of jazz, dancers would call for a section to be played again which in turn got monotonous and led to improvised sections, creating what we know as jazz today. With the introduction of the microphone and the radio, music venues changed. You could now have music anywhere. Also, music could now be written specifically for recording and playback. Byrne’s example is “My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker. The dynamics of being right into the microphone is an excellent example of being able to broadcast right into listeners’ ears. With music now firmly split between recorded music and live music, people flock to see popular artists and are forced to play poorly sounding larger spaces such as sports stadiums and arenas. Some bands, according to Byrne, try to fit these larger stadiums creating arena rock. Also, there are now spaces dedicated to enjoyment of recorded music, most notably the discotheque. Byrne then links the dancers of jazz wanting to hear sections again to early hip-hop, as MCs would rhyme over the best part of disco hits. He then says there is music written explicitly for car stereos, mostly today’s hip-hop music with heavy bass and today’s pop written with extreme detail but no dynamics for today’s MP3 players.
Byrne is highly effective at tracing the venues of music. There are some small holes from making such a larger generalization such as U2 only makes music for giant stadiums or using Chet Baker as the best example as recordings shaping music. I would choose something more layered or nuanced like the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles not playing songs from Revolver on their 1966 tour is probably the best example of live vs. recorded music. Regardless, it’s an important topic because they way we interact with music has changed immensely in the past 100 years and more so in the past 15 years. A recent article from the San Jose Mercury News shows that music even shapes venues where music isn’t the most important part of the experience. It’s an article about how music consultants are being hired by restaurants to set the right tone for their establishment. A lot of stores and restaurants are using Pandora or SiriusXM to set a basic mood but with this specialization technique, it could grow to be a larger field. Also, as someone who is interested in the live music industry, to hear the people have always talked and been rowdy at concerts gives me the realization that being quiet at a show is a newer demand and probably is a losing battle as one is fighting years of behavior. Many acts have started to shy away from large stadium tours as of late, which is an interesting trend but also as acts sounds have changed to those, which no longer fit the stadium setting. Hopefully this is a turn to trying to play rooms that better suit their own sound. It also would have been interesting to see David Byrne address such technological advancements as the Constellation Sound System by Meyer. As demonstrated by Bob Weir, formerly of the Grateful Dead, in his TRI Studios, he can make the space sound like a club or a cathedral all with the touch of a button. It’ll be interesting to see if more spaces adapt this technology so a recording artist could make their recording feel like the venue they imagine their playing.