In celebration of Beck’s solo acoustic show at The Rio, GT explores Song Reader, the alternative rock icon’s most ambitious interactive art piece yet.
Here’s an odd little paradox of the digital revolution: The more sophisticated our technology gets, the more our musical milieu begins to resemble that of a bygone era, when song ideas were passed around from musician to musician, perpetually taking on new twists. Dozens of different YouTube users might try their hand at setting somebody’s rant about cats or double rainbows to music, or you might hear the Belgian musician Gotye turning the many and varied covers of his song “Somebody That I Used to Know” into a virtual orchestra (see below).
Song Reader, the latest project from the four-time platinum alternative rock singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist known as Beck, takes full advantage of the unprecedented potential for musical cross-pollination that modern technology affords us. Eight years in the making, Song Reader isn’t a recording, but a 108-page book of sheet music for 20 new compositions never recorded by the songwriter himself. With its old-timey illustrations and whimsical mock advertisements, the songbook pays tribute to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when music fans had to rely on transcriptions to get an earful of their favorite songwriters’ latest efforts.
At first blush, the idea of a contemporary artist presenting his newest works exclusively in sheet music form—originally a medium for songwriters who had no other means of distributing their music to the masses—might come off as gimmicky, or as an opportunistic bid for the affections of the ukulele-and-vinyl-record-toting retro-hipster. A visit to Song Reader’s official site, songreader.net, proves otherwise: Here you will find an embarrassment of talented musicians bringing notes on paper to life, 2013-style.
Along with the absence of any definitive recordings, what makes this project work is the relatively sparse notation of the music: With the exception of the trumpet and tenor saxophone parts in “Old Shanghai,” only the vocal melodies, lyrics, piano parts and guitar or ukulele chords are provided. In the preface to the book, the composer encourages participants to personalize these songs’ arrangements, if not ignore them outright. “Don’t feel beholden to what’s notated,” he urges. “Use any instrument you want to. Change the chords; rephrase the melodies. Keep only the lyrics, if desired. Play it fast or slow, swung or straight. Take a song and make it an instrumental or an a cappella. Play it for friends, or only for yourself.”
The open-ended nature of these compositions has given rise to a fascinatingly diverse array of submissions. At songreader.net, you might hear a single song being given country, hip-hop, rock, cabaret, Brit-pop or jazz treatments by various participants, and each version is likely to be furnished with vastly different instrumentation, backing vocals, solos, etc. Some artists have made an effort to provide the closest possible approximation of Beck’s style, while others have veered into wholly unexpected territory. For example, if you’ve ever wondered what a duet between Tom Waits and a robot would sound like (how’s that for retro-modern?), Adam & the Canadians’ version of “Do We? We Do” ought to satisfy your curiosity.
In keeping with the style of old-time sheet music, many of Song Reader’s pages feature mock advertisements for other songs that have been cut short, sending contributors an unspoken invitation to finish the compositions as they see fit. One example is “There’s a Sarcophagus in Egypt with Your Name on It”—like “Girl” from 2005’s Guero, a charming little tune, if you don’t mind some homicidal undertones. Beck has provided only a first verse:
There’s a sarcophagus in Egypt with your name on it
You will be my queen of the Nile
I will be your pharaoh with Cupid’s gilded arrow
Come sleep inside my tomb for a while
A contributor named John Alexander has deftly retrofitted “Sarcophagus” with additional verses (“Lying in the middle of a hieroglyphic riddle, beneath the bandages you wear a smile”) and an inspired bridge (“The sun will fall, the moon will rise, just as the ancients prophesized”). His interpretation of the song is a one-stop demonstration of Song Reader’s merits as a catalyst for creativity.
Attempted by a lesser-known musician, a project of this magnitude easily could have flopped, but as one of alternative culture’s most beloved mascots, Beck, whose May 19 acoustic gig at The Rio Theatre sold out in literally a single minute, has summoned a wealth of eager participants. Along with the copious renditions of the songbook’s tunes that can be found at the website, Song Reader has inspired a sold-out show May 20 show at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and an exhibit at Los Angeles’ Sonos Studio. The Portland Cello Project has gone so far as to put out a recording of the full album (yes, at least according to Wiki, it is, in fact, an album).
Beck first began to toy with the idea of releasing a songbook in the mid-’90s, when a publisher sent him some transcriptions of tunes from one of his first albums. Seeing the more abstract sounds from these songs expressed as two-dimensional constellations of ink, he became painfully aware that this was an album that should be heard, not seen. From here, he began to envision this process in reverse.
The musician’s interest in the songbook format was rekindled a few years later, when he learned that at one point, nearly half the people in the United States had bought the sheet music for the Bing Crosby ditty “Sweet Leilani”—a statistic that filled his head with visions of families gathering around the piano and playing the tune after dinner. As he told Pitchfork magazine last year, “This idea of a mass convergence on a song struck me.”
Finally freed up to pursue this project after years of touring and recording, Beck began work on Song Reader in 2002, familiarizing himself not only with the songs of the 19th and 20th century, but also with the style of art and tone of the copy that adorned the sheet music of the times. As he states in the songbook’s preface, “I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.”
Like its packaging, Song Reader’s musical content juxtaposes the antique with the modern, making it an ideal soundtrack for this age of steampunk-style computer keyboards, techno-tribal festivals and state-of-the-art vintage amp modeling. Much of the songbook finds the composer reimagining Tin Pan Alley-style music for the present day, some highlights being “Do We? We Do,” “Old Shanghai” and the haunting “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You.’” Musicians and psych majors alike will enjoy the inventive “Mutilation Rag,” which turns the piano into a battleground on which the right and left hands fight one another.
As he did on his unusually straightforward, heartfelt 2002 album Sea Change, Beck has toned down his trademark quirkiness and simplified his lyrical approach on Song Reader, this time in an effort to create a collection of classic, Great American Songbook-style tunes. But while relatively subdued in most of the compositions themselves, his sense of humor emerges in the mock ads and in tempo markings like “rhetorically” (“Do We? We Do”), “bizarramente” (“Mutilation Rag”), “uniformly” (“We All Wear Cloaks”) and “Do not mind this tempo marking either” (“If You Come to My Garden of Love [Don’t Mind the Weeds]”).
“I was aware, while working on the project, that a lot of people would take the book as a pretty odd idea,” Beck told Jordan Bass of McSweeney’s, the independent publishing house that released the songbook. “So I thought, initially, that I would write songs that were serious and present them in a very straightforward way, without adornments. But, between collecting cases full of old sheet music and seeing all the possibilities of the presentation, as we worked on the package, I realized that it would be a shame to ignore the humor and fun in the medium. Sheet music could be loud, and garish, and completely preposterous. Some of those old songs are relics of a brand of American absurdity, the same absurdity you see in bad ’70s cop shows or ’80s pop videos.”
Don’t Get Married to a Computer
Song Reader is part of a growing list of interactive art projects Beck has instigated: In his ongoing Record Club project at beck.com, he invites various musicians to cover a complete album by another artist or band in a single day, and at various times, he has put out an interactive iPhone app, an album with a blank cover for listeners to decorate and, most recently, a video of his live performance of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” that not only allows the viewer to experience the show from anywhere in the house, but also is linked to the viewer’s webcam, causing the camera angle to change in response to the viewer’s head movements.
Participatory projects like these, which encourage listeners to develop a personal relationship with music, can only be a good thing at this point in history, when we often take for granted the songs we download or listen to for free online, and when—to co-opt a line from Song Reader’s final offering, “Last Night You Were a Dream”—a blasé attitude toward music has crept into Computer Age minds “like a guest you can’t impress; the future in disguise.”
If interactive artworks like Beck’s, not to mention phenomena like YouTube, Facebook and northern Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival, are any indication of the direction in which entertainment is evolving, then future generations may view Song Reader as a relic from an era when performer and audience began to morph into a single entity, and when creative people from all over the world would gather in the virtual parlor of cyberspace to entertain one another.
Learn more about Beck at beck.com.