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Good Sheet: 5 Revelations About Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ From McSweeney’s

Beck McSweeney's Interview Song Reader

Beck turned a lot of heads when he announced his plans to release an entire album as sheet music. Some guffawed at this old-timey notion, while others lauded the idea of the so-called Song Reader, but whatever your gut reaction, you’ve got to admit it’s a bold and tantalizing move to release music on paper in the age of the Internet. Although the 20-song set isn’t out until December 7, we’ve already seen the staff of The New Yorker perform their own version of “Old Shanghai,” not to mention countless YouTube renditions of “Do We? We Do,” the only “song” publicly released so far. So while Beck has promised an album you can actually hear immediately upon purchase next year, it’s worth seeing what this one can do in the interim. Mr. Hansen sat down with Song Reader‘s publisher, the venerable McSweeney’s, in order to demystify the release. Here are five things that we learned from the chat:

1) He’s been planning it for a while: “After one of my first records came out, in the ’90s, a publisher sent me a sheet music version of the album—someone had transcribed it for piano and voice. The album itself was full of noises, beats, bent sounds, feedback—it had a lot of  sonic ideas that were meant to be heard, as a recording … At the time, I mentioned to the people I worked with that it might be better to write a group of songs specifically for a songbook … We finally began the process back in 2004.”

2) He wants to hear your version: “These songs are meant to be pulled apart and reshaped. The idea of them being played by choirs, brass bands, string ensembles, anything outside of traditional rock-band constructs—it’s interesting because it’s outside of where my songs normally exist … I think some of the best covers will reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves.”

3) The format influenced his writing: “The entertainment factor has to be in the songwriting itself. When I was getting into music, it had become something that was tied more to the studio process than the kind of auteur songwriting that was popular before—the music got its power from studio techniques. Those studio sounds and processes didn’t always translate to a cheap acoustic guitar the way a Hank Williams or a Buddy Holly song could.”

4) There are secret songs in the margins: “The old sheet music I’d been collecting spares no empty space on the page—every corner is filled with some ad or proclamation about other songs they were trying to sell … I was drawn to the idea that, with all these fragments of other songs, there was a sort of Borgesian aspect of whether they really existed at all. You could imagine that beyond the fragment, something miraculous could exist, even if it was probably lost.”

5) He also thinks it’s kinda silly: “Between collecting cases full of old sheet music and seeing all the possibilities of the presentation, as we worked on the package, I realized that it would be a shame to ignore the humor and fun in the medium. Sheet music could be loud, and garish, and completely preposterous. Some of those old songs are relics of a brand of American absurdity, the same absurdity you see in bad ’70s cop shows or ’80s pop videos.”