Friday, December 7, 2012, marked the release date of Beck Hansen's newest project, Song Reader. As of this date, anybody can log onto McSweeney's and purchase a bound edition of twenty new pieces of sheet music written by Beck for $34. There is no MP3 download site, and no CD to upload and forget about. The title of this project is quite literal, as it is a book of songs for musicians to read.
In November, the New Yorker published a preface to the project written by Beck on its website. Here, Beck discusses how he came about this project and why he felt compelled to make certain choices. He felt particularly compelled to create a songbook reminiscent of an early 20th century American songwriting tradition when he heard a Bing Crosby recording from the late 1930s:
I came across a story about a song called “Sweet Leilani,” which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.
With Song Reader, Beck invites interpretation and interaction. Prior to its official release date, Beck launched songreader.net as an online hub for the project. "Old Shanghai" was made available for a free download, and musicians were encouraged to record and share their interpretations of the song. These early contributions all use the same lyrics, follow the same form, and are basically in the same style. They differ in their instrumentation, tempo, number of choruses, and vocal interpretation. Some interesting submissions come from The Portland Cello Project and staff from The New Yorker. The SRO's interpretation adds an extra instrumental verse, showing off the winds and brass.
Beck's Song Reader is a new take on an old concept that acknowledges its own anachronism by way of social media. The music, accompanied by illustrations, looks old, and has the potential to sound old. For "Old Shanghai," at least, the lyrics are vague but enticing; the melodies and harmonies are relatively simple with some chromatic inflection; and the form is a typical verse/chorus with a bridge. What makes it new is the rejuvenation new commercial music in sheet music form. This gives musicians—amateur and professional, alike—the opportunity to take a skeleton of music and shape its performance and interpretation. Beck is the author of the work, but the music-making process has been democratized by the intentional lack of a definitive recording.
Enjoy SRO's interpretation of "Old Shanghai," arranged by Scott Teske and Ian Williams and featuring Tamara Power-Drutis on vocals.
- Rebecca Cweibel