Beck’s 2012 Song Reader project was issued not as an audio recording, but as a book of sheet music.
This “album” was issued by McSweeney’s, in perhaps the most McSweeney’s way possible: “complete with full-color, heyday-of-home-play-inspired art for each song and a lavishly produced hardcover carrying case.”
In a Q&A, the musician described the historic roots of this elaborate presentation:
“I thought, initially, that I would write songs that were serious and present them in a very straightforward way, without adornments. But, 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.“
In 2013, Beck did present a series of concerts around Song Reader, and in 2014 he also released a recording featuring performances of his songs by other musicians. But rather than privilege his own performance, the purpose of this project was to encourage others to perform these works, in an explicit callback to the days before recorded music. Many of these performances can be found on the project website:
Clearly, Song Reader is a rejoinder to the immateriality of the modern music listening experience. But it presents an equal challenge to the correspondent revival of legacy music formats. Vinyl records and cassette tapes offer ownership and a sort of received authenticity, but not the active participation and creative interpretation demanded by Song Reader.
Earlier this year, K.E. Gover published an article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism called “Are All Multiples the Same? The Problematic Nature of the Limited Edition.” Gover doesn’t name-check Beck, but nonetheless the article is a useful companion to Song Reader, especially in considering the philosophical distinctions between physical and immaterial multiplicity in the arts.
An important difference between prints and performances is that prints within an edition are (usually) expected to be identical in look and in status. There is no hierarchy of prints within the edition. Performances, on the other hand, are viewed as creative, interpretive acts. Variation is expected and even valued, so long as it occurs within the parameters of the score.
Song Reader is a typical McSweeney’s deluxe edition, and therefore it is a beautiful and tactile print object. Yet despite its antique trappings, Song Reader feels less nostalgic than a vinyl record. This project transfers the value of Beck’s music from the object to the possibilities for its own re-interpretation. In this gesture, this work draws attention to acute limitations in our culture’s relationship with music.
Nostalgia is like the ghost of experience, dependent upon memory. Beck’s premise depends entirely on future experience, and therein lies its worth.