Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Beck’s Song Reader “album” came out this week. It’s not a recording, but a book of sheet music for twenty new Beck songs. If you want to hear what they sound like, you have two options: you can play them yourself, or listen to other people’s performances of them, which are being posted at Songreader.net. A group of staffers from The New Yorker, for instance, have posted their version of Song Reader‘s early… single, would you call it?… “Old Shanghai.”
Still, Beck isn’t the first contemporary musician to think of that particular trick. Back in 2008, Deerhoof released “Fresh Born,” the first single from Offend Maggie, sheet music and invited their fans to record their own versions before hearing the “official” one. Here’s the video for Deerhoof‘s own performance of “Fresh Born.”
But perhaps conventional sheet music is a little too … conventional. There’s a long, robust tradition of scores for music that are written as language, or drawn as images, or that mutate the staves and notes of sheet music. Beck, as it happens, is connected to that history too. His grandfather Al Hansen was, for a time, a member of Fluxus, a collective that upended the conventional way of making art. Hansen apparently gave advice to the composer George Brecht that inspired Brecht’s 1959 piece “Time-Table Music,” in which musicians get timetables from a train station and use them as scores to play music for specific lengths of time.
One of the godfathers of Fluxus was composer John Cage, whose experimental-music classes in the ’50s were attended by several of the future members of Fluxus. Cage’s most famous piece is “4’33,”" first performed in 1952 by pianist David Tudor. It’s a piece in three brief movements, in which one or more musicians play nothing; the music arguably consists of whatever the audience hears while the instrument is not being played. (Tudor continued to perform “4’33″” over the years; a later performance appears in the video below.)
A decade later, Cage wrote “0’00,”" also known as “4’33″ No. 2″; it’s a solo piece, to be performed “in any way by anyone,” and consisting of a “disciplined action,” but never the same action at more than one performance. It was dedicated to Yoko Ono, another member of Fluxus (who was most famous at the time for creating instruction-based performance pieces), and composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was then her husband. Ichiyanagi also wrote music with intensely unconventional-looking scores–the video below is Ichiyanagi’s 1960 pieces “Music for Piano No. 3″ and “No. 5″; this is his score for “No. 7″ in the same series.
One of Al Hansen’s best-known works involved pushing a piano off the roof of a building in 1970; he titled it “Yoko Ono Piano Drop,” after his Fluxus comrade. But that, in turn, seems to have been partly inspired by one of Fluxus’s first famous moments: the 1962 event at which a group of people performed Philip Corner’s “Piano Activities.” Corner’s piece is a text score, in which performers are supposed to interact with a piano in various physical ways — scratching it, dropping objects on it, hitting the soundboard. The Fluxus performers eventually demolished the piano altogether. (There’s a great photo of them and the piano halfway down this page.) That original performance has been re-staged numerous times; here’s a 2009 version.
Several decades later, the experimental British pop group the Art of Noise was very familiar with the history of the artistic avant-garde — they were named after a 1913 Futurist manifesto. Their video for their 1984 single “Close (to the Edit),” directed by Zbigniew Rybcynski, didn’t show the group’s members themselves, but its ritualized piano-destruction sure looks like a reinterpretation of Fluxus performing Corner’s piece.
Completing some kind of circuit, Yoko Ono‘s 1985 single “Hell in Paradise” had a video directed by Rybcynski that clearly owed a lot to the visual approach of his “Close (to the Edit)” video.
So how does Song Reader fit into that chain? It’s hardly an avant-garde gesture; in some ways, nothing could be more traditional than sheet music, although it’s not a tradition that’s had a lot of currency lately. But it’s also slightly prankish and serious at the same time — a piece of art with the Fluxus attitude faintly present in its background. The section of Beck’s preface to the book in which he suggests how the songs might be performed, in fact, is very much like Cage and Ono’s instruction pieces: “Personalizing and even ignoring the arrangements is encouraged. Don’t feel beholden to what’s notated. Use any instrument you want to. Change the chords; rephrase the melodies … Play it for friends, or only for yourself.”