A McSweeney’s Books Q&A with Beck Hansen, author of Song Reader.
Somehow, Beck Hansen’s just-released Song Reader feels completely steeped in another time and completely appropriate to our own—it’s a book of sheet music, painstakingly crafted sheet music, that’s meant to come to life right here in our new golden age of home performance. The whole project has been years in the making, and the final product is a pretty incredible thing to behold. We wrote to the author to ask a few questions about how it came to be. —Jordan Bass
McSWEENEY’S: So here we are, late in 2012, and you’ve just put a heck of a lot of effort into crafting a set of songs that you’re only going to release as sheet music. Where’d that idea come from, originally? And what is it about a project like this that seemed exciting to take on?
BECK: The idea has been around since I started releasing music. 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. Seeing those songs reduced down to piano parts made me feel like they’d become abstractions. 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, rather than trying to force the songs from my record into written arrangements. But years of touring and making albums didn’t leave time to do the project properly. We finally began the process back in 2004.
McSWEENEY’S: It seems like you thought about this as a different kind of songwriting, in terms of what could be expressed and how you’d want to arrange it—the songs in Song Reader aren’t quite like the songs you’d put on one of your records. Can you describe that difference, a little bit?
BECK: I realized early on that the songs would have to be different, definitely. When you write for your own voice, you have certain constraints you become accustomed to; when you’re asking other people to learn songs they’ve never heard, that puts a different kind of pressure on what the songs should be. I thought a lot about whether these songs should be simple singalongs or more esoteric pieces that would make for better reading on the page for nonmusicians, whether they should be written in older styles or if that would make them dismissable as a nostalgic whim. Eventually I decided that attempting, in my own limited way, to get to some idea of what songwriting is at heart—attempting to work from that place—would, at least conceptually, help give the songs a direction. 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.
McSWEENEY’S: At the same time, there’s a tone here that, to my mind, feels like you—the way you can make a song feel eccentric but authentic at the same time. And that went into the way we thought about the rest of project, too, the art and the writing and the other extra bits and all. How’d you think about applying a Beck aesthetic to a sheet-music book?
BECK: I was aware, while working on the project, that a lot of people would take the book as a pretty odd idea. So 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. 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. I think there’s a way to celebrate it all, without reducing it to ironic fodder.
McSWEENEY’S: You have a great bit, in your preface, about how when you were starting out as a musician, the pop music that was around didn’t feel like music you were supposed to play on your own—there was this division between what you heard on the radio and what a teenager could do with a guitar. But pre-radio, pop music had to be playable by the average at-home musician, almost by definition. And you talk about how that’s a fundamentally different way to relate to a song. What’s interesting to you, about that other kind of relationship?
BECK: It’s true that songs used to be written not only to catch people’s ears, but to make them want to play them themselves. That’s a radically different mindset for a songwriter. 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. There’s nothing wrong with studio techniques, but I was aware, growing up, of that division between the sounds I could make and the ones I was hearing on the radio. It was probably one of the reasons I was drawn to folk and country blues. That other continuum of songs, the ones that are meant to exist in the hands of those who play them for themselves, still feels like a valuable separate space.
McSWEENEY’S: On top of those main songs, you knew from pretty early on that you wanted to include a whole slew of shorter numbers, too, on the backs of the individual song booklets—fragments that would play off of the songs they were attached to. Some of the songs here have seven or eight “answers” added to them—I think we ended up with almost fifty of those little compositions, altogether. How’d you approach those, compared to the longer songs? DId you imagine a different person writing them?
BECK: The idea to do the fragments came as we were deciding on the layout of the individual song sheets. 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, and some of that promotional material was pretty odd or over the top. 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.
McSWEENEY’S: When we announced this project, a couple of months ago, we pretty much instantly started getting inquiries from children’s choirs, and covers from all over the place of the one music page we put out there, and all kinds of other responses to the idea of getting involved—it seems like you might’ve struck a chord, here in the internet age, by putting together a book like this. How much were you thinking about that kind of audience involvement, when you were working on this? Do you think you’ll be surprised by what people end up doing?
BECK: I know I will. 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 thought a lot about making these songs playable and approachable, but still musically interesting. I think some of the best covers will reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves. There are no rules in interpretation.