In the realm of so-called Classical music (I actually think Art Music might be a better term), it is normal procedure for a composer to write out his or her intentions on paper, and then give the performance responsibilities to others. While many composers are also performers, some are and some are not their best proponents as performers. (For example, having heard Aaron Copland play his Piano Concerto, I can say he didn’t do as interesting a job with the solo part as other pianists I’ve heard since.) Many feel the composer’s version of a work, captured on recording, is somehow “definitive” and therefore the standard for others to live up to. Maybe if you’re Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten that’s true, but I assure you, not always. In the realms of jazz and pop music, the situation is more complicated. Jazz and pop “scores” rarely get as detailed as Art Music scores do. Indeed, a jazz “score” might only give a basic tune and some chord changes, leaving all matters of instrumentation and “arrangement” to the discretion of the performers. In a medium that value change, not only will two different performers bring very different readings to the same “score,” but often the same performer, on two different occasions, will produce radically different results. Pop musicians, on the other hand, often use the recording studio as a way of laying down a “score” for a song. The way various parts come together in the studio becomes the definitive version of the song, and fans at concerts are often annoyed when a live version of a song varies from the recorded version they know and love. This is true even when the recorded “arrangement” was not, strictly speaking, arranged by the composer. Consider the song “Eleanor Rigby” by Lennon & McCartney. It was George Martin who came up with the string quartet arrangement that accompanies that song. For most people, that string quartet arrangement is what defines the song, and makes it unique, but it wasn’t actually composed by either Lennon or McCartney.
Many musicians owe their “sounds” to arrangers (hence the success of people like Quincy Jones) or even to their producers (i.e. Phil Spector). Certainly, the evolution and growth of the Beatles was owed not only to their increasing sophistication as musicians, but to the increased involvement of George Martin in their studio recordings. Or to take a different example, an album like Laura Nyro’s remarkable “New York Tendaberry” would not have the subtle colorations and poetic power it has without the exquisite, delicate arrangements. When I hear those songs performed in other versions, I miss the particulars of the original sound. A Joni Mitchell song, originally accompanied by a dulcimer and guitar, is bizarrely unlike Joni Mitchell when presented with full orchestra; it just doesn’t sound like her anymore.
All these thoughts came careening out listening to “Song Reader,” a CD of 20 songs by Beck. You may recall, a few years back, Beck issued an “album” of songs on sheet music, encouraging others to perform them. This led to a flurry of very interesting YouTube videos of people performing songs by Beck that he had never performed himself. Again, in the realm of Art Music, this would be nothing new, and Beck clearly was out to discover what other performers might make of his material without fixing a version of the song in their imaginations first. This new CD includes a wide array of performers, with Beck himself only performing one of the songs (“Heaven’s Ladder”). Other performers include Nora Jones, Jack White, Jack Black, David Johansen, and Loudon Wainwright III. To say that the results are “eclectic” is an understatement. The CD sounds much more like some kind of mix-tape than it does like a Beck CD. Only a few of the pieces still “sound like Beck” in these realizations.
That’s not to say this CD isn’t enjoyable, and interesting, and kind of fun. Considering what a stylistic chameleon Beck is, drawing from so many different styles and borrowing an even quoting when it suits his fancy, in some ways this kind of diversified approach makes a great deal of artistic sense. On the other hand, what held together Beck’s stylistic collages was his voice, his intrinsic sensibility as a performer - that wry and vulnerable vocal and stage presence. Without him in the songs, they quickly devolve into something else, into what sound curiously like someone else’s music. The most Beck-like song on this CD (and in many ways, the best) is the one he sings himself.