Open Source Heroes: Jordan Bass, Editor of Beck Hansen’s “Song Reader”

Books / Contributor / Culture / Interview / North America / Open Source

The music industry has been so hard-hit by the digital “share” age it has become its own metaphor. “Downloading” first took on pejorative connotations after the wide dissemination of MP3s, whereas until then downloading was only something you did with software or anti-virus updates on your Windows operating system. Today we say we've downloaded something to imply the content is unattributed, unpaid for. However, we are also increasinly using the word “download” to refer to information accumulation. We download information and learn it forever. The great thing about sheet music is that it makes the listener the vehicle of the medium, and rather than risk cutting an album that gets downloaded in the profit-less former version, Beck's “Song Reader” allows us to physically incorporate the notes, measures and phrases that make up the sounds of music we want to consume so freely. We talked to his editor, Jordan Bass, a bit about the concept.

PH: Is there any particular interpretation of the Song Reader that you like that's been posted on YouTube for example?

I really liked these guys



And the Portland Cello Project put together their own versions of all twenty songs—they have an album of 'em up on iTunes. I got to see a couple of their performances at the end of last year, and thought they were pretty incredible.

PH: Have you heard any criticism that Beck is phoning it in because he isn't interested in playing it himself?

Knowing the amount of work that went into the book—and how much effort he put in personally, writing all that music—I haven't been too stung by that kind of comment. What's been great to see is how many people have understood the idea pretty intuitively—it's gotten a bigger response than we could've ever hoped for, from musicians and readers and Beck fans of all stripes. The hope was that not having an official version of each song to listen to would let people fill that space themselves, and encourage all sorts of different interpretations—it's been really exciting to see that happen.

PH: Do you consider this an example of open sourcing media (per one review)?

That wasn't the metaphor we went for, when putting the book together, but I think it makes sense, in some ways—for us, when we started in on this with Beck, it was really about attempting to summon up the spirit of the sort of participatory musical culture that was pop music, a little less than a century ago. The idea of having to play it yourself, if you wanted to hear a popular song, seems weirdly intimidating now, and we wanted to see if we could make that feeling accessible again. And then, of course, we lucked into this other sort of cultural moment—YouTube didn't even exist yet, when we started talking about this project, but by the time the book came out people just knew what to do with it. That participatory spirit is alive and well online, now.

PH: Song Reader reminds me a lot of architecture in that it depends on other people to bring it to life. whereas architecture is about Visual 3-D performing music is a sonic 3-D.

Cool! I'm humbled to hear you say that.

PH: Do you guys have any clauses about wider distribution of music, the way an album does? i.e. commercializing off of performances?

We've been very happy to just let all this happen. People have put on shows, and posted their own versions online—we set up to give folks a sort of central home for their versions. It's been a lot of fun to watch the site fill up.

PH: How do you think record labels feel about sheet music now? Does it disrupt their market or is it more like they're into the nostalgic mood of the medium?

I'm not sure, I guess! We weren't aiming for disruption, exactly—the feeling was more that we might be in a moment where it wasn't crazy to try to put out a set of songs in a provocative, quasi-experimental form. It's not supposed to be a challenge to straight-ahead records or record labels—it's just a different thing, something that Beck was ready for and that we thought readers/listeners might be ready for, too.

PH: Can we expect more sheet music from Beck or any other pop musicians?

I hope so.

PH: This is a round-about question but let's say an architect's equivalent to “sheet music” would be a blueprint. To render it or actualize it, it used to be that a user had to be able to understand schematics, which would be the equivalent of knowing how to play an instrument or read music, in the case of compositions. Today there are rendering tools that are cheap-to-free, and you can even have hand-drawn sketches turned into 3D prototypes. Similarly, it is much easier to produce music without having the musical language skills you used to need to compose music. What do you think is the importance of having these “language skills” if at all? Do you see any agenda in Song Reader to encourage learning traditional musical language or performance?

After many months of working on it, I failed to become any better myself at reading notation, so I don't know if it's fair to impose an agenda on anyone else. If anything, we really wanted the book to be interesting to people who couldn't read music at all—we wanted there to be enough art and text around each piece that you would get the feeling of a song just from poring over the song sheet, in the way can sometimes when you pick up at album and immerse yourself in the liner notes. I think blueprints are beautiful, too, even though I would be completely unable to turn one into a habitable building.

At the same time, yes, there's another level of experience here available to people who will sit down and play the music. That's important, too. But even then, it doesn't have to be about strict adherence to the language—Beck, in his intro, talked about the shift he experienced, when he started out, from thinking that pop music was something that came from some inaccessible place, via the radio or a record, to thinking that it was something that he could make himself. I think we were interested in pushing people toward that position, a little bit—we wanted the book to say, these songs are supposed to be played by you.

Jordan Bass is the managing editor at McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Check out his interview with Beck Hansen here. The album is available here.