Beck’s Song Reader

by Juliana


Well, dear blog, it has been awhile. My only excuse is that it has been a year of transition. Nothing gives one perspective like transition, and while this has been true for me on a personal level, I think it also applies to our musical culture.  (Though when I write that, it occurs to me, isn’t the whole of history a big transition? There goes that lid on Pandora’s adorable little box…)

What sparked all this was a concert, back in the crush of the December holidays, by the Portland Cello Project. With some notable guest singers, they performed the just-released new album by Beck. How is that possible? Well, taking a page from, oh, the 1850s, Beck’s new album, the Song Reader, is actually a collection of sheet music: songs written by Beck and beautifully printed on old fashioned paper, to be taken home and interpreted by all of us lovely people. In one fell swoop he has stuck his foot into all kinds of old debates about the nature of music and its role in society, while at the same time inviting our modern age to return to the act of participating in our daily experience, rather than merely passively witnessing it.

See, music is essentially an ephemeral art, the signs and symbols we use to write it down may represent it in the physical form of an object, but these signs are not the actual music. Centuries ago, the only way to experience music was to watch it live or play it yourself. And the only way to ‘record’ it was to write down these representative symbols. With the ability to record music’s actual sounding tones came a sense that each piece of music had an ideal way of sounding, and effort to perform it became a trial in reaching that ideal. Music lost, to some extent, that ephemeral quality, the freedom to be recreated in every performance by a new voice. Beck’s Song Reader has returned that liberty to us; in refusing to record a definitive version of the songs, they are once again ephemeral, like recipes in a kitchen. And additionally, we are required to participate in this album, to join the conversation rather than sit dumbly by. Bravo Beck, for bringing our modern world, so full of transitions, right around in a cycle to things long forgotten. But that is the nature of things, isn’t it.