The future of music fascinates me — mainly how technology is causing it to drift away from the 20th-century model of music as a physical commodity. While the shift may be moving at a glacial pace, I get excited thinking about music, specifically pop music, regaining some of its earliest strengths and traits. Mainly existing in multiple forms, interpretive as an idea, not merely a product set in sonic stone. I recently had the pleasure of talking with someone of great influence to me and my generation, Beck, about his upcoming Song Reader project — 20 never-before-recorded songs that will be released only in notated form. When I first heard about it I was very intrigued. In my mind, this work will help to continue this emerging evolution of music’s new form by taking up a format long antiquated to the pop audience: sheet music. — Dan Deacon
DEACON: I went to school for music and studied composition and just kept thinking, I am basically writing Sanskrit. No one gives a crap about notation. I’m wondering what your connection to sheet music and notation and songbooks is.
BECK: Once I got into playing music, I was drawn to folk music and rural blues music. Recordings of that music were really hard to come by, so certain songs that I had heard about, the only way I could see what the music was like was in notated form. I think about music I recorded in the last 10, 15 years, and I can tell you there’s a lot of music that’s lost forever because it was on a hard drive. We have musical manuscripts from 400 or 500 years ago, so they may be things that last longer.
How long have you been thinking about doing a release like this?
Well this idea came in the early 90s when I was putting out my first records, and Hal Leonard sent a songbook version of the record. I was looking at it, and it just seemed so abstract and weird. And it didn’t make sense because the record was much more about sonic ideas and experimenting with recording and sounds, and those things really didn’t translate to piano transcription.
Since I haven’t seen the notation of the pieces, my mind’s been racing — are these for particular ensembles or is it for piano notation and people can go and orchestrate them on their own? I am just wondering what you’re looking forward to being the interaction between the music and your audience.
I tried to make the songs as simple as possible. I would write something different for myself than if I had the idea that someone else was going to be able to play these songs. I started to think about these kinds of songs that were songs in the American songbook — you know, these perennial kinds of songs that work in different eras and remain classics. Not that I was — it would be pretentious of me to think that I’d be making a bunch of, quote, classics.
When I think about one of those songs, I think about how you’ll hear a standard from the repertoire, and while it’s a standard — and maybe this is what you’re saying — it takes on a new life because it’s almost like the composer deliberately left it open and free. While the pitch is there and the rhythm is there, it’s still devised with a simplicity that makes it so open for that individual style to be implanted into it time and time again.
Yeah, and it’s funny, cause for every one of the songs that winds up being a classic there’s probably a thousand that don’t make it. A lot of these songs tend to be simple and universal, but they somehow transcend becoming just mere platitude or cliche. It’s a treacherous line, I think. The ones who get really close to that edge but don’t go over become classics. The Beatles managed to do that time and again and a lot of the great songwriters: Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and on and on.
So all of these pieces were written specifically for this collection.
Well, I had a bunch of songs lying around, but I would say about half of them were, and then the other half were just things that seemed to fit. I started working on this with McSweeney’s in 2004, so it took me a long time to reconcile with the fact that the project probably wouldn’t be as good as the idea (laughs). I think that’s why I put it off for so many years. Like, no, I’ve gotta wait until there are some really good songs, songs that are worthy of asking people to play. But then I realized that wasn’t going to happen, and the value in the project is the idea I guess, and hopefully a couple of the songs find themselves in the hands of somebody who can do something good with them.
My favorite thing about sheet music is that when someone learns the piece, it’s actually ingrained in how they both think about music and play it. When I think about how you said you started working on this in 2004, I think if it came out then it wouldn’t nearly have had the same impact. Because there are going to be thousands of representations of this that people can go and see with YouTube.
Yeah I know what you mean. There was a time when the song didn’t exist off of a piece of paper until somebody learned to play it. I read about 10 years ago that Bing Crosby had a hit in the 30s, and playing music in the home was so popular at that point it had sold 54 million copies of sheet music. At the time there were about 130 million people in America. So that was just an indicator to me of how common that was.
Well, it had a different value to them. It didn’t exist in the same saturation. Nowadays it’s difficult to escape music, and to think there were people who, if they didn’t play it themselves or weren’t in earshot of people playing it, never heard it.
Yeah. They didn’t have portable radios until 50 years ago or so. And there’s something different that happens to the song when you learn it, it’s not the same song that you listen to passively on a record. It changes. And it becomes a part of you.
And it’s not like many other things. It’s not like playing a sport, or knowing a code in a video game or something. I feel like it’s one of those few things that is unique to the art of making music.
It’s true. One other thing I would say about the book is that putting [it] together we knew that most people weren’t going to be able to play these, but there’s a pretty substantial visual element to the book, too. I think a lot of what people will take from it is the visual element.
I don’t know, I think you’re underestimating the population of people who are going to be psyched to play and interpret and arrange these songs. You go back and you think about how the Stones used to play Beatles songs, and you’d never go to shows and see that, but now you could go to a show and have somebody be like, “Hey, this is one of those new Beck songs. You haven’t heard it.”
I would love that. And one of the things I thought about was the fact that some songs over the years have been written in completely different eras and didn’t find their definite version until much later. There’s a song called “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams that I learned as a teenager, and I found out later it had been written in the 20s as sort of a Tin Pan Alley song. But he turned it into this classic country version. He really made it his own, and I think that’s happened over and over.
I think that’s what you were saying before about making the music your own, but still leaving it open enough so that when someone does add their own style, it doesn’t impede that interpretation.
Yeah, and people are getting much more direct access to songs, so there’s less of an ability to be able to have a song be an extension of a pop personality. People are gravitating to a song whether it’s by Adele or a country artist or Deerhunter. I find, more and more, younger people just care about the song. The song will prevail as time goes on.
This story originally appeared in Issue 26 of our weekly iPad magazine Huffington, in the iTunes App store.