Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s)

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Beck Song Reader

By Lucy Cage

Beck is releasing his new ‘album’, Song Reader, as sheet music.

As far as I can tell – I haven’t seen it but obviously that’s not going to stop me opining about it – the collection of song sheets will be beautifully designed, printed and packaged in perfect faux-antique/just-a-hint-of-a-wink-to-modernity style; a lovely, well-crafted object that will delight and amuse.

I’m ambivalent about this: viewing the world through sepia-tinted glasses isn’t my cup of Darjeeling and Beck’s choice of aesthetic only lends credence to those who think that the whole enterprise is horribly elitist/twee/smug/precious/backwards-looking and is more about gimmickry than experimentation.

It won’t help that it’s co-published by McSweeney’s, the US literary quarterly/publishing company run by the writer Dave Eggers, Beck’s collaborator in this project. There’s a good case to be made that Eggers’ enthusiastic cottage industry of a magazine was the spark that set off the whole art-as-artefact, tweedgeek, retro-worship some years back; all that lauding of craftsmanship, quality, limited editions… none of which are bad things per se, obviously, but what it’s led to isn’t all good either, politically or aesthetically. Enough of fixed-gear bikes and wicker baskets: where did the future go? Is everyone settling for the pretence of a nebulous golden age rather than fighting to make a badly-needed new future? How does the fetishisation of marketable product – the limited print runs, the limited access – fit in a world of financially valueless, infinitely shareable digital files? Where’s the liberation, where’s the progress, where’s the shine? (Plus, isn’t this precisely one of those things white folk just love to do and write about as if nothing much else existed outside our bubble of cosy joy?)

Oh, who am I kidding?! I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Song Reader; I’ll get over my privileged discomfort. Sod reverse snobbery: mmm, pretty packaging!

According to a recent interview with The Guardian this was a seriously long-term project for Beck; he started thinking about it before the internet age, before MP3 were zipping across the globe, before the music industry as we know it juddered on its foundations with the realisation that the window of opportunity for making money from music by selling it on vinyl or plastic had begun and ended within the space of a century and a half. That particular paradigmatical ship had sunk. Of course, before then music could be sold on paper: back when every aspirational household had a piano to play rather than a radio or a record player if you wanted music, you played it yourself. And before the words cheap and mass-produced were pejoratives, intricately printed song sheets just like the Beck’s used to sell in their hundreds of thousands. Beautiful things don’t need to be small scale.

(There’s no point even trying to measure the relative moral, cultural or even goddamn psychological worth of the way music was consumed then and now; writing it, playing it, dancing to it, sharing it; concert-going or mix-tape-making or streaming or 7-inch shopping or humming it on yer paper-round: different ways and means of playing with music have their virtues and drawbacks. People were huffing and puffing just as much about the awfulness and moral turpitude of the gramophone – how it would kill music and ruin families – when it was first manufactured for home use, just as they did about home-taping not so long ago and do now about file-sharing… Change is inevitable but it certainly rattles cages, usually with solid financial reason.)

(continues overleaf)

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4 Responses to Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s)

  1. Everett True December 3, 2012 at 10:06 am

    (from Facebook)

    Nick Smith

    “I don’t get the whole attitude that regards sheet music as nostalgic, quaint, elitist etc. It is the only universal language there is and a fuck sight easier than learning so-called contemporary ‘languages’ like say Javascript or Python or whatever. Just because music teaching curricula often eschew simple music theory doesn’t mean that trying to learn to read music is in any way backward looking.”

    Sure, but in order to be able to play Beck’s “album” you not only need to be able to read music to a certain level but also be able to play an instrument and have access to an instrument (or several). That is excluding and elitist. Not saying that is necessarily a bad thing but it is elitist.

    Nick Smith
    What I’m trying to get at is that what Beck has done is the opposite of the Punk thing about learning 3 chords. That was empowering – “look, playing music is easy – anyone can do it”. (Of course you still needed access to an instrument). And of course many punk musicians went on to learn more than 3 chords and developed high levels of musicianship. What Beck has done is saying, “you have to learn to read music, and then learn to play an instrument fairly well and only then you can enjoy the wonderful album I have written.”

    Everett True
    Is learning to play three chords on guitar simpler simpler then playing a xylophone or piano. then? I never found it to be so. I’ve actually found it excluding and elitist, the notion you have to learn these three chords. Playing a piano is far more intuitive. Is it cheaper to buy a guitar or something? Rubbish. You’re just talking about the received wisdom you’re familiar with, Nick. Others might – and do – feel differently.

    To be able to play ANY song (unless you’re going to do it a cappella) you need access to an instrument (or several), and have some form of an idea what you’re going to do with them (or not… whatever). Beck releasing an album as sheet music doesn’t alter that fact.

    For years, I’ve been expecting a slew of accusations about how reviewing music in photographs or via the medium of dance or in haiku form is exclusionary. Yet it’s no more exclusionary than reading the jargon that has always passed for music criticism.

    Everett True
    On the one hand, someone tried to make it as simple as possible to play a guitar, by showing a diagram of three chords.

    On the other, someone tried to make it as simple as possible to play piano, by inventing a universal language, easily learned (certainly as easy as that clumsy notation of playing chords on a guitar).

    It’s up to you which route you take. I chose the latter, not because I felt it was elitist, but because I found it far simpler.

    Nick Smith
    Good points there. And I too can read music for piano but struggle with chords on the guitar. I was more referring to the level of ability needed to play Beck’s pieces compared with a simpler starting point. I was going to say something about the universality of releasing recorded music that anyone can listen to (on CD/cassette/mp3 etc)without having to be able to read music/learn an instrument. Except, thinking about it, that is just as excluding if you don’t have access to the equipment on which to play it.

    Everett True
    Indeed. It’s interesting, Nick – because it entirely depends on your perspective here. My gut instinct is to think of sheet music as being far more inclusive than music released via MP3 (for example), because of the reason you just stated, but of course that’s a reflection of my age, the tradition I’m from. And the fact I’ve just been watching Pennies From Heaven.

    Also, as a self-taught pianist (from sheet music) I’ve never seen a lack of ‘ability’ as a stumbling block to anything. Imagination is easily as important.

    And yes, I would really fucking struggle to play some of what I’ve seen of Beck’s pieces, whereas Chris Anderson – who is one of the most talented pianists (and nicest human beings) it has been my pleasure to know – would whizz through them no doubt. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try though. There’s no fucking way I can play piano as well as either Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but I’m really proud of some of my interpretations of their songs on piano… and they’re way different as well.

    Lucy Cage
    Beck’s not saying that at all; anyone with access to the internet (elitist?!) can access the videos & MP3s of the songs on his album, more of which are being uploaded everyday.
    If you want to participate rather than just consume, it’s up to you how you do that. It might mean learning to read music; it might mean getting together with someone else who can; it might mean figuring out how to play the songs on an cheap old guitar.

    Everett True
    I too appreciate the consumption vs participation aspect.

    Nick Smith
    Having the internet and people being able to upload their versions of Beck’s album is exciting and adds another layer. However, it is still excluding. Let me explain; I work with people with learning disabilities and this, of course, informs how I perceive a lot of things. Many of the people I work with do not have access to the internet, or if they do then it is limited access that would not allow them to stream music (try doing this on the slow connection at my local library). They have to be able to use a computer and be able to afford an internet connection whilst on benefits. So something being on the internet means they are excluded from it. However, that can be said for almost any way of being involved with music – being able to afford/get to gigs, ability to play it yourself, access to equipment to play it on etc. Which is the point I made in my last post. In conclusion, I have shifted my position from thinking that Beck releasing his album on sheet music is really elitist to thinking that it is only as excluding as any of the many other ways music can be disseminated.

  2. Jonathan Stroemer December 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    You know, even before grammophones and the Edison phonograph and such, in the actual age of sheet music, people were huffing and puffing about how only the stuff that would sell (mostly salon music) got published and how that destroyed everything for the “actual artists”.

  3. chris December 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    We do the same job Nick. Quite severe learning disabilities and mental health. Two of my people sing in a local choir and most of the others love listening to music. They all have plenty of access to musical instruments and internet at college and home but their limited abilities and interests prevent them from fully exploring most things. However they are supported and ultimately given free choice. Learning notation isn’t high up on my people’s list of priorities though as is the case for many other people.
    If I was being provocative I might suggest that many who consider it elitist to learn to read music basically decided it wasn’t of any interest to them when they were younger. Some had decided perhaps that it wasn’t very punk or cool or whatever. I remember at school how a substantial percentage of kids just pissed around in class music lessons which were on the curriculum then. I just wonder how many of such people might nowadays be bleating on about elitism.
    Not being able to afford in any way to do music is 100% a personal choice, having nothing to do with being able to affords a piano etc. The voice is the first instrument we use and singing is a wonderful way of sharing. A single melody line of music is easier to read than multiple notes as in the piano. Harmonizing with other voices is a lovely pastime but understandably many people have other things to do with their time which are equally as worthy or more so. You don’t have to read music to harmonize with a voice – but if you want a record of it to pass on to others who might not have a keen ear, then the best way to do that is by using the language of music – notes. I don’t understand how it becomes some kind of class war issue about elitism or being backward looking, quaint or anything. Paper’s a practical application which will outlive recorded digital or otherwise media. Calling reading sheet music elitist is like calling knitting elitist. Quite ridiculous.

  4. Daniel December 4, 2012 at 1:28 am

    Doesn’t every (interesting) record cater to a niche? It’s more of a statement on the current state of arts education and criticism to portend that publishing music amounts to a class war in the 21st century. Even the hearing impaired can evaluate these songs. That must be of some relief to the P4k staff, should they choose to review it.

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