Pittsburgh musicians to perform Beck's sheet music
By Michael Machosky
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 8:34 p.m.
When you start your career by releasing one of the single strangest singles of all time — and it becomes a massive, genre-defying and possibly generation-defining smash — it's hard to know where to go from there.
So, after “Loser,” Beck Hansen just kind of did it all. Soon, what seemed like detours became sharp turns, through lo-fi throwback hip-hop, noise-rock, freaky funk, creaky blues, found-sound collage, tense electro, melancholy folk, even off-kilter soul — somehow without sounding like anyone but Beck.
Obviously, it would be pretty hard to surprise longtime fans, even if he decided to try his hand at Italian opera, easy listening or black metal. Yet, his latest album, “Song Reader,” managed to do just that.
“Song Reader” was released entirely on sheet music. No song had ever been performed before, and no definitive, sanctioned-by-the-artist audio version exists. Listeners are instead invited to play the music themselves, and interpret it any way they want.
When Pittsburgh-based musician Richard Gartner got “Song Reader,” he immediately felt that the songs deserved to be played aloud, in the company of others. On April 3 at Club Cafe, Gartner and a team of local bands and musicians — calling themselves Everyone's Out to Get You, after a Beck song from his debut album “Mellow Gold” (1994) — will perform “Song Reader” in its entirety.
“It's a really cool way to just get music out there,” says Gartner, who also plays drums in the bands Soma Mestizo and Sugar Daddy and the Big Boned Girls. “I think there's kind of a digital backlash. Ukeleles are becoming popular again, because they're easy to play, inexpensive, and you can carry them around. Banjos are coming back — almost like all these ‘fireside' instruments.”
In a way, sheet music is a window into another time. Before recorded music became dominant, this was how most people experienced music — gathering around a piano, playing it live and singing along.
This particular gathering, however, includes some of Pittsburgh's best musicians, including members of the Wreckids, the Grifters, Jazzam, the Chad Sipes Stereo, Elliott Sussman, and Sugar Daddy and the Big-Boned Girls.
The instrumentation will be mostly acoustic, with some piano, trumpet, tuba and a little bit of electric guitar.
“Beck is such a production-oriented artist,” Gartner says. “(‘Song Reader') almost strips away a bit of his identity, I think, to intentionally write songs on a printed page, rather than go to a studio and make sounds.”
In typical Beck fashion, the songs are all over the map stylistically.
“He doesn't really mark the style that songs should be,” Gartner says. “He'll give a couple musical cues, for some direction. But he says in the preface that you can discard all of that.”
Lyrically, they're also hard to quantify. One song is called “America, Here's My Boy,” a first-person lament from a parent who sent a son off to war. It's printed with World War I-looking poster on the back.
“To me, it was startling that Beck acknowledged the real world (in a song) at all,” Gartner says. “He's addressing something that actually happened — rather than something abstract, philosophical or emotional.”
“Song Reader” is clearly meant to be a physical object – each sheet/song is beautifully illustrated, which is a key component of just about everything from its publisher, McSweeney's.
However, there's also an online component. Anyone can go to www.songreader.net and submit their own interpretations of the songs. There are all kinds so far, ranging from piano-and-bongo duos to animated videos. After the Wednesday-night show, Everyone's Out to Get You will upload their own.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.
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