Scheduled to be available in December, Beck’s new album will consist of a collection of 20 new songs published only as sheet music. Here, for what they’re worth, are my initial takes on the project.

Written By

Rob Deemer

A couple of months ago while I was on the West Coast to interview composers, Ken Ueno took me to the famed Amoeba Music record store in Berkeley. I hadn’t been to a brick-and-mortar music store in quite a while and was quickly transported back to a time in the ’80s when I’d scour the racks at Rose Records and Tower Records in Chicago. For a kid growing up in Corn Town, Illinois, such exercises were one of the only ways to discover new music, artists, and composers.

The experience became even more reminiscent of those days when I saw Silfra, Hilary Hahn’s new release with the experimental pianist Haushcka, being sold as an LP. I vaguely recalled hearing about a few pop artists who were still releasing LPs and even the occasional cassette of their albums, so I wasn’t too surprised by this throwback. For a second I thought this was a pretty risky move on Hahn’s part–the portion of the population that has never owned a turntable is ever-growing–until I noticed that the LP also came with access codes for digital downloads of the music as well; Hahn’s not risk-adverse, but she’s also not stupid. The entire album is made up of improvisations between the two artists (a bold move in and of itself), and the non-traditional content seems to fit nicely within the retro medium through which it is being heard.

Hahn’s experiment came to mind this week when the news broke about Beck’s new album. Scheduled to be available in December, Beck Hansen’s Song Reader will consist of a collection of 20 new songs published only as sheet music. Beck’s website explains further:

In the wake of Modern Guilt and The Information, Beck’s latest album comes in an almost-forgotten form—twenty songs existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded. Complete with full-color, heyday-of-home-play-inspired art for each song and a lavishly produced hardcover carrying case (and, when necessary, ukulele notation), the Song Reader is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012—an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together.

The songs here are as unfailingly exciting as you’d expect from their author, but if you want to hear “Do We? We Do,” or “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” bringing them to life depends on you.

BECK HANSEN’S SONG READER features original art from Marcel Dzama (who created the imagery for Beck’s acclaimed Guero), Leanne Shapton, Josh Cochran, Jessica Hische, and many more, as well as an introduction by Jody Rosen (Slate, The New York Times) and a foreword by Beck. The package measures 9.5” x 12.5” with 108 pages comprising 20 individual full-color song booklets—18 featuring original lyrics, and 2 instrumentals—with covers from more than a dozen different artists.

Readers’ (and select musicians’) renditions of the songs will be featured on the McSweeney’s website.

Reactions on the intertubes to the announcement have been predictably mixed, with Beck being labeled as a cutting-edge genius or a pretentious gimmick-laden hipster. One fan laments that “this eliminates so many people from being able to participate in the music except by various recording of likely dubious quality…” while another gets right to the point: “Notation is boring.” Composers seem to be equally divided, with complaints directed towards the inherent irony of printed music being portrayed as new and unique while compliments point toward the risks Beck is willing to take as well as the gesture away from overly processed studio production techniques.

Here, for what they’re worth, are my initial takes on Beck’s project:

1) This is one more way to utilize the immense power of community through the Internet to create music. I’ve been very interested in how musicians have been experimenting with group concepts to either create new works or foster new ways to present their music. Two contrasting examples of this are composer/producer Kutiman (Israeli-born Ophir Kutiel) and composer/conductor Eric Whitacre. In 2009, Kutiman created his ThruYOU project, a series of “songs” made by splicing and layering pre-existing YouTube amateur videos. In 2010, Whitacre came out with his first “virtual choir” which combined videos of 185 choristers singing their individual parts into an online performance of his Lux Aurumque; two subsequent virtual choirs included over 2000 and almost 4000 singers from around the world. I see Beck’s experiment as taking these innovations one step further by encouraging others to interpret his lead sheets in their own way. Will there be lousy performances? Of course there will be, but that comes with the territory of letting your creations go off into the world.

2) This is not new or unique, and yet it is. Published sheet music of songs has been around for over two centuries and today bookstores and music stores continue to be replete with lead sheet collections for every remotely popular act. That being said, the concept of the audio recording by the artist or band as being the “work” in question has been in force in popular music since the record industry blossomed in the 1940s and ’50s and lead sheets have always followed the recordings. To publish the sheet music not only before but instead of a recording altogether is indeed unique in Beck’s genre of music and his slice of the music industry. Which brings me to…

3) Comparing Beck’s project to what most composers do is a mistake. I’ve seen several composers already snarkily suggest that publishing printed music in the hope that others will perform it is what we do all the time, and so how is this new or bold? This almost seems too obvious. The vast majority of (read: not all) concert composers are not writing lead-sheet songs that are appropriate for the general public to perform. That, and Beck is known throughout the world and we’re not; even if this project sells a fraction of what his normal albums do, he’ll still sell more sheet music in one year than most concert composers could dream of. But I don’t see this project in terms of how much money he’s making–it’s obvious that he’s not too concerned about that himself–but rather getting as many people to perform his music as possible.

4) John Phillip Sousa and John Cage would approve. Sousa’s feelings about the infant recording industry at the turn of the century now seem prescient: “I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue–or rather by vice–of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.” The severe backlash that Beck will endure because of his decision to not record his songs will, I’m afraid, be a testament to Sousa’s musings, but ultimately the project may inspire others to do the same and usher forth a new national respect for printed music. Beck’s experiment is also right in line with Cage’s ideas on allowing others to serve not as automatons but as active participants in the creative process; this was demonstrated perfectly by the two performances this week of Renga:Cage:100 by the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble at the Kennedy Center and MOMA with 5- to 7-second compositions by 100 composers strung together into one piece.

Ultimately it will be interesting to see how Beck’s album fares; it could be dead on arrival or it could spark a new cottage industry. It bears mentioning, however, that in this year that the Academy Award for Best Picture went to a silent film, we have not completely divested ourselves from our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ cultural gifts.