Beck’s new release is a unique musical experiment. Song Reader is a collection of 20 songs that are not recorded but composed as sheet music. The idea is for fans to play the songs from the ‘album’ and bring them to life themselves.
On the surface, this should be an irrelevance to the world of museums. Especially for those of us who are interested in digital development and the use of new technologies.
Indeed for many, Song Reader might sound inaccessible, pretentious and, perhaps most pointedly, regressive. In the age of itunes, Spotify and Youtube, where music is available instantly and, more often than not, for free, why would people want to buy what is essentially a glorified tab book?
According to The Culture Show’s Michael Smith, Song Reader is seminal and offers real inspiration. The concept questions how we experience and consume music in the digital age. We’ve become ‘negligent listeners’ and ‘the art of the album is wilting as a result’. Song Reader is a direct response to this.
Beck challenges us to physically play instead of lazily, distractedly listen to our mp3 players. He urges people to experiment with the song sheet and play in different styles and musical genres.
Michael Smith’s review for the BBC got me thinking: for those involved in the arts, heritage and museum sector, Beck espouses very familiar objectives – participation, collaboration and independent interpretation.
Rather than plonking on a pair of Sennheiser’s and haphazardly scrolling through your iPod playlist, Song Reader demands personal input. Passivity is not an option. Unless you want to stare at a blank sheet of paper. This is surely pertinent for museums. Visitors can stare into a glass cabinet curiosity and read the accompanying description, but this only ever offers a narrow and one-dimensional view. By putting the onus back onto the visitor to explore, in the mould of Song Reader, we are not burdening but empowering visitors to use knowledge in the way they want.
Song Reader is social. You don’t necessarily have to gather round a piano with the whole family and belt out an old music hall classic, but the concept does lend itself to sharing ideas with others. Museums are beginning to realise that many visitors also want to express and share their ideas. Whilst in the past visitors might fill out a comment card and drop it into the suggestion box, we expect more than a two-way dialogue now. We crowd-source recommendations, share photos, post blogs, comment, rate exhibitions, like, retweet, and pin all manner of things.
There is something strangely familiar and comforting about Song Reader. It celebrates the human element of music and pushes people back to the fore. Beck writes in the preface to Song Reader that, ”These songs, they’re here to be brought to life, or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone.” Likewise, artefacts and museum blurbs can only really come to life when visitors engage with them.
Whilst not all of us are able to play instruments or perform in front of an audience, many of us are comfortable, often quite eager, to use new technologies to expand and build on our existing knowledge.
It is perhaps paradoxical that Beck’s Song Reader – a call to return to simpler times – inspired me to think about how we could harness new technology in museums. I don’t think, however, that Beck’s ideas are incompatible with museums of the future. So long as the technology available encourages us to explore, rather than consume, knowledge then that can only be a good thing.