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Beck's Sheet Music Project Revives A Great Tradition

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 05:00 PM

Beck Hansen's latest project 'Song Reader' comes in the form of sheet music. Beck Hansen's latest project 'Song Reader' comes in the form of sheet music. (Gina Ribisi / courtesy of the artist)

Part of how I learned to play guitar was by getting the sheet music for some of the albums I liked. This turned out to be a deflating experience. An album that sounded really experimental and challenging, like David Bowie's Low, turned out to have some pretty basic chord sequences. In fact, a lot of what drove me to look beyond the rock music I grew up with was the fact that I was getting a little bored with strumming C, F, G and Am chords on the old Epiphone. I didn’t stop liking the songs, but they weren't as much fun to play as they were to hear. 

On the other hand, I would often find fellow guitarists with sheet music for songs I had never heard, and if I spotted an interesting progression of harmonies, I'd learn the song.  By which I mean, I would learn my own version of the song. This is how I found myself playing the song "Diary" by the band Bread. On paper, it looked interesting: a bunch of minor sixth chords, which were new to me, and suspended ninths, and possibly even a diminished chord. I wasn't crazy about the song, didn’t bother with the words, but liked the challenge of negotiating new material. 

Then I heard the song on the radio. I was appalled. It was the softest of soft rock. My taste as a teen ran towards Bowie, Genesis -- the sheet music for Wind And Wuthering had a couple of very rewarding songs -- and punk, which, ironically, was fun to play precisely because there was nothing there but those same old chord progressions, played fast and loud. And here I had been playing the aural equivalent of Lite beer.

Beck's Song Reader

The experience of printed music and recorded music can be utterly different. Printed music is a participatory experience. Recorded music says "sit back, relax, throw those seeds and stems away, and just listen." I’m not saying one is better than the other; in fact, I would say it’s best to have both. And maybe, with so many people making music in their bedrooms and on their laptops, we're getting back to a more participatory era in music. 

Beck seems to think so.

His handsome Song Reader is an album in its original sense, a book of printed material, songs and fragments of other songs and fake ads that harken back to the early 20th century. Beck's hit records are such studio creations that I expect playing some of them on the guitar would be like my Low experience, wondering where the song's magic went. Yet he created these songs specifically to accommodate many levels of music-making: Guy or girl with guitar, or even a big honkin' brass band. 

I've only had time to read through one of the songs, the Big Lebowski-inspired "Saint Dude," which my colleagues at Studio 360 decided to record and which included many of us New York Public Radio hosts.

But I really like the idea of songs that, while complete, are not finished. That part is up to us. 

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