Modern Nostalgia: Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ and Interactive Music in the Digital Age

On 11 December 2012, Beck released his twelfth studio album, Song Reader. But! – it isn’t really a studio album at all. Song Reader is a collection of (gasp!) sheet music containing 20 songs and over 100 pages of artwork, designed by a team of artists in collaboration with McSweeney’s. Beck designed this project around the popular music of the early twentieth century, and the resulting combination of highly-stylized music, notation, and art are meant to invoke the nostalgic feeling of sitting around the piano, making music together at home.

To justify inclusion of the artwork and many of the stylistic choices, Beck has admitted that the book was intentionally designed to be able ‘to stand alone as an object, aside from the music’ (‘the music’ being a cringe-inducing reference for any musicologist, to be sure), and that the book is inspired by the ‘physicality’ of a traditional album.

The inspiration of a bygone era goes further than the visual and physical design. While writing the songs, Beck realized that ‘playable’ songs were a necessity, and was curious about the type of songs that ‘allow others to inhabit them and to make them their own’ (quotation is from previously linked New Yorker article). At that point, he decided that the songs he would normally write for himself to record weren’t ‘appropriate’ for the project, and this realization that intent can change output shaped the direction of the published songs. For a musician with a famously eclectic style that has ranged from the slacker-rock of 1993’s ‘Loser‘ to the horn infusion of 1999’s ‘Sexx Laws‘ and the introspective, pared-down quiet of 2002’s ‘Golden Age‘, the concept of writing a song that everyone can play is understandably daunting. Anyone who has ever written music will understand that composing for one’s self is an entirely different beast than composing something for someone else to play.

Even using this directed compositional style, there are still moments in Song Reader that are inherently ‘Beck’ : choice harmonic passages and lyrical turns of phrase, (though nothing one would need to look up in the Becktionary), but in terms of simplicity for the sake of accessibility (not necessarily a negative quality), he has certainly succeeded. The songs are, for lack of a better word, playable.

Any time a modern artist dips into a practice that has long existed in the dominion of classical music (the word ‘classical’ in the sense of broad genre), it’s not surprising that some feathers get ruffled in the resulting discussion. In this case, the centre of the discussion was an article by Forbes contributor Will Burns, whose byline explicitly states, ‘I write about the importance of creativity in modern branding’ (branding being the key word here). The controversy mostly revolved around Burns’ reference to Song Reader as ‘a genius innovation’. I won’t get into the discussion, but feel free to read the comments and Burns’ follow-up article. Needless to say, it’s interesting to see notation functioning as a divisive line between classical and pop genres.

Genius or not, Song Reader certainly stirs the waters of popular music in regard to marketing and artistic direction, joining the likes of Björk’s Biophilia as a sort of ‘concept album’ for the modern world. Biophilia was (and still is!) available for release as a collection of apps for iPad and iPhone. The approaches are different – Björk’s being decidedly grounded in the technology of the future, while Beck seems to be attempting to create modern nostalgia – but these albums do have one major thing in common: as an accompaniment to the releases, there has been some sort of museum-esque installation where humans can physically go and interact with this music. In the case of Song Reader, it is an exhibition at the Sonos Studio in Los Angeles, where people can go and use available instruments to play the songs and share them with others, as well as hearing other people’s interpretations of the same songs. Björk’s installation was part of her tour to promote Biophilia. Rather than play one or two large gigs in many cities, the Biophilia tour was comprised of residencies where she performed intimate concerts and ran workshops for children about music and science.

Beck’s exhibition can be interpreted as a method of directed nostalgia in the vein of the Song Reader project itself – by situating modern music in the context of a ‘museum’ atmosphere, the songs themselves become part of a nostalgia display, like artifacts, constantly being created and re-created. At home, users upload videos to YouTube in the hopes of being featured on the Song Reader homepage (a welcome screen message tells readers ‘Only you can bring Beck Hansen’s Song Reader to life’). Once uploaded, these videos develop a nostalgia of their own, with the potential for repetition and reflection, by both the uploading self and by outsiders. The reflective and social elements of Song Reader are part of how this new nostalgia can be effective for a music release – the social element not only relates to sitting at home, playing music with friends or family, but to the modern community on the internet.

In a time where the act of releasing music is becoming more and more disembodied due to digital media, interactive musical releases (I’m not sure it’s appropriate to really call them ‘albums’ anymore) are at least in part a reactionary statement to the lack of physicality present in much of popular music. Through the interactive medium an artist has the option to control not only the content (what could generally be considered ‘the music’) but the method of reception. Certainly there can be a decidedly financial, anti-piracy function, as Burns pointed out in Forbes, but the concept of artistic control is intriguing. Is interactive music the only real way of making certain a listener’s focus is on the content? Or is the interactive element merely the artist including the listener’s distraction along with the content, and potentially raising the value of the visual or physical above the auditory?

Any question of result or impact can’t yet be answered so soon after the release of each of these projects, so the idea of the ‘staying power’ is difficult to consider. Whether physical, visual, or aural, any method that encourages engagement with music on a multi-sensory level will provide a differentiation of experience – the question is how this differentiation might shape the future of musical creation.

I played through some of the music in Song Reader; I tried out all of the Biophilia apps. And speaking as someone who has, for quite some time, regularly engaged with the music of both of these artists, I can easily say that neither of these new works will be replacing the albums currently holding the top spot for each in my regard (Sea Change and Vespertine, in case you were curious). Perhaps the key is in the desire for repetitive engagement – what is it about an album that makes someone want to listen multiple times? Or perform its songs, for that matter? Anyone who has learned an instrument is familiar with those songs that beg to be played over and over. In an article in The Atlantic, Esther Yi suggests that Song Reader ‘monopolizes your attention’ without ‘head-splitting bass and glossy production’. While I agree that this is true in the first or second sit-down, it may not necessarily be as monopolizing in repeated playings. For me, what it came down to was the excitement wearing off. Many reviewers have cited this type of lukewarm revisitation as a result of music that simply isn’t that good. I won’t judge the music of either project as separate from its vessel, because I think that’s beside the point for each of these experiments. The most interesting thing about both projects is the idea of considering music as inextricable from the way we reach it.

Certain albums work their way into personal nostalgia by reminding us of a specific time in life, the time when it was new to usSong Reader attempts to fabricate a new nostalgia, but can’t quite muster the same joyous, summer-soaked recollection that I get when I hear ‘Loser’. I don’t think it’s Beck’s fault – musical reception has a lot to do with time. There are pieces of music in all genres that on first hearing don’t excited us but become a major part of our listening or playing rotation weeks, months, or even years later. The next mainstream interactive project is coming up soon: Lady Gaga is releasing her next album as an iPad app. It will be interesting to see what one million Little Monsters with iPads have to say about interactive music. As for me, I’m going to hold out for the next major nostalgia exercise – I’m hoping for an illuminated Beyoncé manuscript.

As always, feel free to post questions and comments – bonus points if you include video of yourself performing something from Song Reader.

EDIT: Almost forgot to give a quick thanks to the members of the Royal Holloway INFORM reading group, who allowed me to choose this topic for our discussion on 14 March, and provided stimulating and thoughtful conversation.

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This entry was posted in Beck, Björk, interactive music, notation, popular music. Bookmark the permalink.

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