So Old It’s New

     |    Wednesday August 15th, 2012

Apparently one needs to have no knowledge whatsoever of what one is writing about if one writes for the Washington Post, a fact which may shock several friends who do write or have written for that august journal and actually do know what they’re saying. But blogger Jen Cheney, in her ignorance, has pointed out something really wonderful, and it’s worth discussing. In her August 9 post on the Post‘s Celebritology 2.0 blog (and what genius came up with that name?), she tells us “Beck — ‘90s indie-rock hero and one of the few musicians in history to make J.C. Penney sound fun-kay  is going in a very unconventional direction with his next album. And by very unconventional, I mean that his next album will contain absolutely no music at all, as Stereogum has noted.”



And sure enough, Beck’s own website confirms that in December, McSweeney’s will publish Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, twenty new songs published as individual sheets of music, 108 pages with 20 individual song booklets — 18 with lyrics and two instrumentals — all lavishly illustrated, etc.


I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Cheney, whose idea of an “oldie” probably goes back to Beyoncé’s second album, but this is hardly “punishment for all those illegal downloads,” let alone “unconventional.” It’s simply the way the music business used to work back in the days before there were recordings. In fact, it’s the origin of the word “album” as applied to music. Although it’s commonplace today to ascribe that usage to an LP, which replaced the multi-page, hard-bound album of 78rpm records, that album itself referred to an album of songs, a collection. On paper.


One thing the record business did as soon as it picked up enough steam was to destroy the sheet music business: once a definitive performance by a professional musician could be accessed by taking a shellac disc and placing it on a turntable, there was no reason to attempt the piece of music yourself, and one of the world’s great social events died: the musicale. There was a time when it was a sign of breeding to know how to play an instrument. Girls, of course, were shoved in front of the piano, and if one showed a particularly nice voice, perhaps singing lessons could be arranged with someone from the church choir. Ladies and gentlemen learned string instruments: the violin family, or, during the big fad of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a mandolin ensemble. For all this you needed sheet music, and a good sheet music publisher could make big bucks with the right material.


Not only was it a sign of breeding, it could be a way to improve one’s lot: after the Civil War in America, loads of brass instruments came on the market from dismissed regimental bands, and they took up residence in schools and charitable institutions. That’s how, in the Colored Waifs’ Home in New Orleans, a young boy who’d been taken away from his prostitute mother picked up a cornet, which he was taught to play. That’s where Louis Armstrong started. Eventually, music education was added to the public school curriculum, so that when I was going to high school, there was a “music appreciation” class and an opportunity to learn to play an instrument and play in the school band or orchestra or sing in the glee club. (Because this curriculum inevitably leads to socialism and the questioning of the Bible’s inerrancy, it has been ruthlessly excised from most school systems by now, however).


Beyond what was offered in school, though, there were the folkies, who learned various instruments, and the rockers, who got into it to make noise and trouble. The difference, of course, was that these people didn’t use sheet music: they pretty much learned by ear. (I remember being naive enough to buy the sheet music album for Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home LP, and how appalled I was at the transcriptions therein, although I did use the melody-and-chords transcriptions of songs I found in Sing Out! and Broadside magazines to learn new stuff).



But that was decades ago. Participation in musical culture long ago devolved into merely consuming it. Although punk upped the number of active participants for a while, these days the average music fan is alienated from the means of its production. That’s not to say that people don’t go see live music, but somehow there’s been a disconnect between the figures on stage and the audience watching to the point that the audience thinks the performers exist solely for their benefit: “Here we are now, entertain us.” Meanwhile, it’s okay to obtain the performers’ product for free, presumably because it’s produced effortlessly and at no expense to anyone.


So I have to applaud Beck for what he’s doing here. You want to hear his new songs? Here’s everything you need to perform them: get busy. True, Beck could be said to be slacking off as a performer, but he’s already put out a bunch of albums of himself performing his songs, so you know what he sounds like. Time for you to do a little work. And hey, it’s also an invitation for you to get creative. I’m a little dismayed that the melody transcriptions also include ukulele chords, because I’m more than a bit sick of hipsters toting ukes, but an E-minor is an E-minor and you can play that on any instrument that makes chords. Beck (and McSweeney’s, which is doing the actual publication here) has offered to post versions of the songs readers submit (as well as “select musicians,” which I find a bit odd: isn’t someone whose musical performance has been selected for public dissemination a “select musician,” or is what Beck’s trying to say here is “professionals?”), and there’d be nothing standing in the way of someone who wanted to record an album of this song album as long as proper credit were given.


And one side-effect of this project might be that once consumers are confronted with the actual technical and artistic difficulties artists are confronted with in their work, and they consider that, just maybe they’ll change their attitude about just how much of a creator’s hard work they’re entitled to for free, right?


Yeah, I know. Nice to think about, though, isn’t it?