Do you know about Beck Hansen’s Song Reader? Its existence became known to me on Saturday night and I think it’s pretty darn rad. Hansen published Song Reader through McSweeney’s in December. It’s a collection of sheet music for 20 new original Beck songs. But that’s all it is—sheet music (and artwork); Hansen hasn’t recorded any of tunes. Maybe he never will. It’s his fans that are bringing the songs to life with hundreds of original arrangements. It’s a project he’d been working on since 2004. In his interview with McSweeney’s he says, “Writing for the page puts everything you come up with under a giant microscope. It was a very different sort of discipline than writing for a recorded project.” He wanted the songs to be accessible to a larger pool of musicians. Now YouTube is exploding with renditions and many are collected on the official songreader.net website.
In the same interview Hansen says, “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.” It must be wild for him as an artist to hear all the different directions folks are going in with his music. I saw Seattle’s first live performance of some of these songs, done by the Seattle Rock Orchestra. It was a pretty spiffy performance that you could see parts of on YouTube if you were really interested. Here’s SRO’s recorded version of “Old Shanghai.”
But here’s a different version of the same song, Beck’s “Old Shanghai” performed by Zoo Pilot. I’m enjoying simply finding versions and listening, experiencing the songs in multiple ways.
And just the idea of Beck’s Song Reader out in the public, for them–for us–to perform made me think about that as an artist.
Musicians everywhere can put their stamps on the pieces in Song Reader and make them their own. Beck is referencing a time of long ago, of gathering around the piano and joining in sing-a-longs. A number of his songs in the collection intrinsically have the charm and whimsy of a different era. The whole concept takes a certain giving up and letting go from Hansen’s side. A do-with-these-what-you-will kind of attitude. I guess I could do that as an artist, but it would be really weird.
This a cool, twangy version of “Please Leave the Light on When You Go.” I just love the three guys’ vocals together; it’s so rich. It’s not how I’ve heard it in the several other versions I’ve gone through. I only wish the sound quality were a bit better.
And (because who doesn’t love juxtaposition?) here’s a different version: “Please Leave the Light on When you Go by The Portland Cello Project. It’s softer and has with female vocals.
Can you imagine writing something–a poem, say–with the plan not to read it, but to let it be read aloud by others? And shared that way? Of course poems are read aloud. In classrooms and in homes. But…rarely are they publicly performed in public by folks who didn’t write them. Though that does happen. Plays are always interpreted, performed through the director’s vision. We play other people’s music all the time on our own pianos or guitars: Beethoven. Grieg. Pearl Jam. Whatever we’re into. It just doesn’t usually work this way. Normally the artist puts out a version and people cover it. We know their intent and we stray. But Beck Hansen gives us something purposefully loose, wide open to interpretation.
In his interview with NPR, Hansen explained, “When you write a song and make a recording and put out a record, it’s kind of [like] sending a message in a bottle,” Beck says. “You don’t really get a lot of feedback. This is a way of sending that song out, and you just get literally thousands of bottles sent back to you.”
Some of those thousands of messages are collected here.