Friday, December 07, 2012

Beck, sheet music, and the nature of the musical work

This review of Beck's new "album"--available only in sheet music, unless you go to the website he's set up for users to post their own recordings of his songs--highlights a number of changes in music culture that challenge the concept of a musical work as distinct from a sound recording, pointing out that Beck's retro stance can't take us back in time but can only work as commentary on our present musical situation, including concepts of authorship:
"Learning to play a song is its own category of experience; recorded music made much of that participation unnecessary," Beck argues.
It's an odd sentiment for a former sampling maven whose hit albums like Odelay were created with the Dust Brothers—whose production credits include the Beastie Boys' collage masterpiece Paul's Boutique. If anything, recorded music enabled new forms of participation to happen—sampling, DJing, and remixing, for starters. With sampling, you could "play" a recording like an instrument. Recorded music made hip-hop possible—hip-hop got its start, after all, with two turntables and a microphone.

Which is another way of saying that sampling helped make Beck's career. Want to play "Jack-Ass," one of Beck's best-known songs? It's tough to notate in sheet music because it relies heavily on a looped sample of a song from 1966—Them's cover of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Beck's song is more than the melody; it's the grain of the sample itself, the watery timbres, the hazy soft-focus memories implied by the '60s riff.

The advent of recorded sound upended our notions of what music could be. Rock, jazz, hip-hop, dub, reggae, disco, and most other popular genres born in the past century are tied to recordings; their life is not in sheet music. Recorded music gave us an array of new possibilities, new sounds, and new confusion about authorship.

Song Reader takes us back to an era when sheet music was king. In this simpler, seemingly halcyon time, friends would gather around a piano in the parlor and play popular songs together. Sheet music served another purpose, too; it was a commodity that could be bought, sold, attributed to a single author, and copyrighted. (The copy machine was decades from being invented.)

Song Reader was partly inspired by the story of a song called "Sweet Leilani," released by Bing Crosby in 1937. "Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold 54 million copies," Beck marvels. "Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past."

The funny thing is, Bing Crosby couldn't read sheet music. ...

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