November 14, 2012


Watch Beck's Sheet-Music Song "Old Shanghai" Performed Live by 'New Yorker' Staff

Jeff Kravitz
Jeff Kravitz

So, Beck is getting all unconventional on his next release, Beck Hansen's Song Reader, which isn't a CD, MP3 or even vinyl LP--it's a book of sheet music, left to the interpretation of fans who are sure to blow up YouTube with their covers. Genius! 

And now we have Beck's first comments on the sheet music release, plus the first listen to the music! The boho rocker posted the book's 1,500-word preface at the New Yorker and also unveiled the sheet music for his new song "Old Shanghai." The New Yorker staff covered the song and filmed the results. Watch below--it's good! 

The preface is interesting and really sheds light on Beck's new project. Here are the essentials... 

--Beck got the idea for the sheet music release in the mid-'90s, when a publisher sent him the sheet-music for one of his albums. "Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural—it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs."

--Bing Crobsy was an influence: "A few years later, I came across a story about a song called 'Sweet Leilani,' which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past."

--The project started over eight years ago. "I met with Dave Eggers in 2004 to talk about doing a songbook project ... Initially I was going to write the songs the same way I’d write one of my albums, only in notated form, leaving the interpretation and performance to the player. But after a few discussions, the approach broadened. We started collecting old sheet music, and becoming acquainted with the art work, the ads, the tone of the copy, and the songs themselves. They were all from a world that had been cast so deeply into the shadow of contemporary music that only the faintest idea of it seemed to exist anymore."

--The songs are rooted in Americana. "When I started out on guitar, I gravitated toward folk and country blues; they seemed to work well with the limited means I had to make music of my own. 

--He's questioning the meaning of a pop song in our age: "... digital developments have made songs even less substantial-seeming than they were when they came on vinyl or CD... Songs have lost their cachet; they compete with so much other noise now that they can become more exaggerated in an attempt to capture attention. The question of what a song is supposed to do, and how its purpose has altered, has begun to seem worth asking."

--He changed his songwriting style: "I started to think about what kind of songs have a quality that allows others to inhabit them and to make them their own. What is it about a song that lets you sing it around a campfire, or play it at a wedding? ... The songs I would write for one of my own records began to seem less appropriate than songs written in a broader style. At times, I struggled against my own writing instincts—where was the line between the simplistic and the universal, the cliché and the enduring? 

--"I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it—it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it. That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project."