Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s)
“Personalizing and even ignoring the arrangements is encouraged. Don’t feel beholden to what’s notated. 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. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance.” (Beck Hansen, Song Reader)
What Beck’s doing is lifting an old model and plonking it down in the 21st Century and seeing what happens, a kind of Borgesian experiment of form and consequence. What will it do to the songs? To the audience? To the industry? To the dissemination of the music? What is a song if it doesn’t appear as a finished package, with everything already in place? Who does it belong to?
If you publish a song as a blueprint, you can’t rely on tone, noise, interpretation, musicianship, arrangements, voice or presence to make it what it is; it has to be incredibly well-wrought, fit to survive the most execrable rendition. As Beck said in The Guardian, it “was a very disciplined process… It was like putting an X-ray or a magnifying glass on your own songwriting – it’s right there, its weaknesses glaring”. You might be able to get a genius recording out of just feedback and howls but writing sheet music is a different art altogether.
Beck’s contrariness is pretty appealing; whether it’s enough to counter the argument that Song Reader is self-indulgent and elitist and will only sell to privileged aesthete-bores and those few (outside the classical world) who still know how to read music is another story.
Well, the internet changes the game entirely. It throws out a challenge to the whole world, opens that niche market wide, and, with PDFs of the pages already circulated for free, makes it a mass-participatory, exciting, collaborative, evolving global project. It’s no longer limited to those people who buy the pretty package. The songs are already being recorded, shared, listened to; videos being made and uploaded and commented on. There are concerts planned, with chamber orchestras and ukulele bands. Versions are informing other versions, changing the way the songs are heard and are interpreted in a marvellous, unpredictable feedback loop of ideas. That, to my mind, is not retrogressive, despite my reservations about the craft-snob monster McSweeney’s spawned.
“I want to hear how far away they are from the original way they were written,” Beck told The Guardian. “I can play them live, but I’m more interested to hear what people do with them.” Yes. Me too. I want to see dubstep versions, versions played on stylophones and on trumpets; I want kids to have a go, Mongolian throat singers and cellists and pop divas. Never mind the staff of the New Yorker playing ‘Old Shanghai’ surprisingly well, I want to hear Beck songs played by elephants and by wind sculptures and London taxi cabs. Make it so!
I think he’s done something beautiful. Generous. Trusting. Democratic. Humble (this is no way to make a fortune). I admire the fact he’s letting his songs go out into the world and his remarkable lack of control-freakery: if he ever records those songs the resulting recordings will just be cover versions among cover versions. It’s exciting to imagine what the world will make of them when it gets its hands on them; I know the results will be peculiar and wonderful and silly and magnificent and unexpected and all kinds of extraordinary, because that’s what happens when artists (Björk, Amanda Palmer among plenty of others) do this kind of thing. Never mind how good his songs actually are: it’s in the nature of cover versions that whatever the raw material, something amazing can be created.
And I know, absolutely know, that a blossoming of creativity will be the inevitable result of setting those sheet music seeds. It makes me feel hugely warm towards humanity. Because when they aren’t fucking themselves up, shooting each other or despoiling their planet, accepting dares and making music together are some of the very best things that humans beings do.
Nice one, Beck.