"Modern ideas that are really good are generally reaffirmations of some kind of eternal, universal, or traditional notion that had been forgotten or submerged for a while."
Those are David Byrne's words, and, at the time, he was just 33 and only beginning to make his indelible mark on the American cultural scene. A year later, in 1986, he would be declared "Rock's Renaissance Man" on the cover of Time, an acknowledgment of an extraordinary array of accomplishments: the groundbreaking music he had made with his band, Talking Heads; the premiere of True Stories, the episodic movie he directed, co-wrote, and starred in; the spellbinding way he blended ancient and modern ideas on the still-influential album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, on which he teamed up with Brian Eno; his thrilling 1981 collaboration with Twyla Tharp on the dance theater piece The Catherine Wheel; the music he had composed for The Knee Plays as part of Robert Wilson's epic theatrical production the CIVIL warS; and the success of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme.
Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design before making his mark as a musician, Byrne seemed both eager to explore every aspect of the arts and capable of saying something compelling in each genre. And, remarkably enough, he has succeeded in making that "Renaissance Man" sobriquet seem confining. Talking Heads may have broken up in 1991, but Byrne has gone on to an impressive solo career, most recently releasing the album Grown Backwards in 2004. Not only that, Luaka Bop, the record label he founded in 1988, began to lend significant momentum to the burgeoning interest in world music, characteristically emphasizing eccentric cultural collisions rather than folkloric purity. Add to this Bryne's sound tracks and compositions, his published works, and his exhibitions of his photographs and drawings.
So it should come as no surprise that the four Perspectives evenings that Byrne has organized for Carnegie Hall audiences next month reflect a startling range of sounds and styles. The first night, February 1, features Byrne accompanied by a brass band performing selections from The Knee Plays. Two nights later, he and his own band will perform songs from Here Lies Love, a song cycle (and a musical in progress) based on the life of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, that he composed with the electronic music artist Fatboy Slim.
A third program, "Welcome to Dreamland," will feature performers associated with the current new wave of evanescent folk music — from Vashti Bunyan, one of its primary inspirations, to Devendra Banhart, one of its most acclaimed practitioners. And "One Note," the closing night's program at Zankel Hall, will present cross-cultural variations on the mystical notion of the single tone that contains within itself all that music — and, indeed, all that life itself — can express. The artists on hand for that program include the French chanteuse Camille, who has sung with the band Nouvelle Vague, as well as the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, a 20-piece group devoted to searching out the connections between progressive music in both the classical and popular camps.
Byrne had performed as part of the 2004 Perspectives concerts that were organized by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and had attended other series that were curated by Emmylou Harris and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. So he had an idea of how fellow artists were approaching these events. "It seemed that people were not necessarily using it as a way to talk about themselves or their influences, but to say, 'Here's this new group I heard, and you need to know about it,'" Byrne says. "I could see that in the Youssou N'Dour and Caetano evenings. They brought in things that are really important to the cultures they came out of, even if they weren't reflected in their own music."
That interplay between personal expression and aesthetic detachment is, of course, central to Byrne's own artistic posture. But his delight in organizing the Perspectives concerts extends much further back than that. "When I was in high school, we would pass around records, and, of course, later on we would make mix tapes for friends," Byrne explains. "This was a way of introducing people to what you were passionate about. Sometimes you get something, and it completely opens you to a new world.
"It was a little bit of a bragging thing," he admits, laughing, "and I still do it. I spent so much time doing it that I thought I should have a structure for it, and that's one of the reasons I started Luaka Bop back in the late 1980s. And that's what Perspectives is like — you do your performance, and then you open up your record collection and invite your friends and people you admire. You open up a larger world of roots and resonances and influences."
Byrne's approach to Perspectives — not to mention every other aspect of his career — obviously runs counter to the type of "niche" programming that is currently fashionable in so many aspects of media and the arts. That's just fine with him. "I'm a little bit suspicious of the whole 'niche' thing," he says, with typical understatement. "It's like, just stick the pacifier in the baby's mouth! Then you pass out from boredom."
His voice begins to rise. "That's not what it's about! We need constant interruptions and disruptions, musically and culturally. Not total chaos, but just enough so that you're alert and stimulated. When everything is too nice, you're lulled — and you're in danger."
Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work.