Before a packed lecture hall on Wednesday evening, musicians David Byrne and James Murphy expounded upon creative impulse, new music technologies, turnstile arpeggios and Japanese flash mobs.
Byrne and Murphy — former frontmen of the widely popular bands Talking Heads and LCD soundsystem, respectively — drew a crowd of New Haven residents, students and professors that filled every seat in the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium. Moderated by WNYC radio producer John Schaefer, “Art & Music: A Conversation between David Byrne and James Murphy” mixed performance art videos straight from Byrne’s hard drive with anecdotes from the musicians’ rich musical pasts.
Though Murphy and Byrne said they had met for the first time only days before the event, Murphy noted that he has always credited Byrne as a major influence on his work. He cited Byrne’s unabashed fusion of visual art and music as particularly significant to his own artistic development.
Noting the similarities between the two artists’ aesthetics, Schaefer quoted a London-based digital PR and marketing agency that wrote on its blog, “James Murphy is our generation’s David Byrne.”
The two men paused before Byrne responded to laughter from the crowd, “Now we both feel weird.”
Rather than speaking about Talking Heads and the New Wave music genre he helped pioneer, Byrne focused on streaming multimedia performance art videos for the audience, created both by him and by other artists. He showed photos of the New York City bike racks he designed based off a series of doodles.
When Schaefer pointed out the increasing trend among musicians to move away from specialization, citing Murphy’s side gig as a DJ, Murphy was quick to note that live music and DJing are not comparable in terms of their difficulty.
“Music is a struggle,” he said. “DJing is like hugging.”
Though similar in their fusion of music and the visual arts, the two artists differed in their descriptions of their songwriting processes. Murphy named four ways in which he writes songs: in his head, through games and patterns, from theoretical ideas, and improvised serenades for his girlfriend — all ways of “tricking” himself into creating music before he realizes what he has accomplished, he said.
While Murphy said that lyrics come to him first or simultaneously with the music, Byrne said that in his compositions, instruments set the tone and dictate the music. Words, which are malleable, come last, Byrne said, adding that melodic shape is even more important than producing distinguishable words.
“Words can make no sense, but they can’t be wrong … they can’t throw off the track,” he said.
Byrne relayed an anecdote of collaborating on a “singing building” in which hammers were rigged to strike the piping to produce cacophonous music. Murphy later mused on the possibility of creating subway turnstiles with timed key pitches that would create a musical “background” to the flow of New York City rush hour.
When asked what has remained unchanged over the course of their careers, both Byrne and Murphy answered that despite new media and the wider knowledge that comes with age, their love of music has stayed the same.
While Talking Headsf remained active until 1991, LCD Soundsystem gave its final performance on April 2, 2011.