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Beck introduces new 'Song Reader' sheet music with essay

November 14, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • "Song Reader" by Beck replicates the design and graphics of classic songbooks.
"Song Reader" by Beck replicates the design and graphics of… (McSweeney's )

Beck Hansen continued the process of introducing his new work "Song Reader" on Tuesday night with an essay in the New Yorker magazine. The collection, which Beck hasn't recorded but composed as sheet music to be played by others, arrives through the lauded McSweeney's publishing imprint on Dec. 7.

In thoughtful and elegant prose, the Los Angeles native explained that the project began after his song publisher sent him the sheet music of one of his records -- the existence of which he hadn't really considered until then.

"Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way," writes Beck, who is best known for his collage-rock masterpieces "Mellow Gold" and "Odelay." "Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs."

From there, the singer-songwriter whose collected output over nearly 20 years ranks him as one of Los Angeles' most accomplished musicians went to work. 

As he did, writes Hansen, a whole world opened up. He cites a composition called "Sweet Leilani," made popular by Bing Crosby in 1937, as an example. According to Hansen, the sheet music of the song sold an estimated 54 million copies -- numbers that Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber would envy. The surprise in those figures is compounded by the presumption that buyers had purchased the music with the intention of actually learning how to play it.

"It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past," he writes. Beck then hits on a fundamental point of "Song Reader" regarding music's changing role in a society that is increasingly overloaded with information. 

"Learning to play a song is its own category of experience; recorded music made much of that participation unnecessary. More recently, digital developments have made songs even less substantial-seeming than they were when they came on vinyl or CD. Access to music has changed the perception of it. Songs have lost their cachet; they compete with so much other noise now that they can become more exaggerated in an attempt to capture attention."

"Song Reader," which in published form will replicate the design and graphics of classic songbooks, arrives with the expectation that musicians of all levels across the world will take Hansen up on the challenge. The staff of the New Yorker is the first to do so with their version of "Old Shanghai." Expect many, many more when "Song Reader" is published. 


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