Beck Hansen (born Bek David Campbell in Los Angeles in 1970) is known everywhere by his first name. He is a multi-platinum recording artist who defies genre labels, pulling his influences from every corner of the music universe. He also has a way with words, dreaming up song titles like “Devil’s Haircut” and “Nicotine & Gravy”, and lyrical phrases like “On a government loan with a guillotine in your libido” (from “Profanity Prayers”). He has released 11 studio albums, which cover a wide range of musical styles, and provided music for the film Scott Pilgrim.
Beck’s 12th album, Song Reader, looks conspicuously backward. He recorded nothing for the album, but rather partnered with publishing house McSweeney’s to produce new songs to be released exclusively as sheet music. There are 20 songs in the set, each in its own richly decorated folio. The set includes a preface (read the whole thing here on the New Yorker blog) in which Beck describes his motivation in such an unusual project. An excerpt:
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 [with author Dave Eggers], 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. I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.
He goes on to say that he intends for people to play these songs themselves and make their own versions, changing as much or as little as they like. And so we are going to do in the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Beck included two instrumentals in the set, and I have arranged one of them, The Last Polka, for wind band. The original is a prelude for solo piano. Beck gives no dynamic markings or tempo indications, allowing for a huge range of interpretations. The only interpretive hints lie in the initial expressive marking, (“Premonitory”), the title, and the cover illustration, which shows a deserted street in a brown palette, suggesting a softly post- (or pre-) apocalyptic scene. The music itself supports that interpretation: the melody is rife with descending chromatic contours, a classic figure of lament. The form is ABA, with a brief, chaotic transition from A to B. Despite its title, The Last Polka is not a polka at all: the A section reads almost like a comical lament, and the B is, if anything, a waltz. Sticking with the idea of a lament, I decided to keep it slow, accelerating only in the transition section. The B section builds in intensity, such that the return of A seems like an even more heartfelt lament for a disappearing world. Textures melt away at the end to a feeling of accepting the inevitable. Even so, there is little tragedy in this music. It feels almost like a quiet version of the words, to quote REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
The Columbia Wind Ensemble plays my arrangement at the Columbia Festival of Winds on March 3, 2013:
Pianist Hanna Silver plays the original and provides her interpretive notes:
A chamber group plays a version that, in the spirit of Beck’s wishes, deviates quite a bit from the original:
Beck has a great website and a Wikipedia page. All of his lyrics are collected here. Song Reader also has its own site, complete with descriptions of the songs and versions by musicians from all over the place. Whiskey Clone keeps a running tab of new versions, including mine (they found it in less than 12 hours). New versions are constantly popping up, so stay on the lookout! For now, here is Beck talking to NPR about the album, as well as a cello ensemble playing all 20 songs from it. Finally, Diffuser lists their five favorite versions of Song Reader songs so far.