At the end 2012 the alt-pop enigma known as Beck unveiled “Song Reader,” 20 new songs in the form of sheet music. None of them had ever been recorded.
If you wanted to hear them, you had two choices: To perform them yourself or wait for someone else to perform them for you.
There has since been a flood of online videos of musicians performing various songs from the collection. But the Portland Cello Project was the first to record and release all 20 songs, followed shortly by a live performance of “Song Reader” in its entirety over the course of three sold-out shows in Portland. In an interview, PCP bandleader Doug Jenkins talks about “Portland Cello Project Plays Beck Hanson’s ‘Song Reader,’ ” as well as a new batch of hip-hop chamber-pop arrangements.
IJ: How did PCP’s “Song Reader” album come together so fast?
DJ: It took Beck seven years to write it but when it came out, for us it was a huge rush. We were working all day and night. We had less than a week to record it. Technically we had six days before we had to be onstage playing it.
IJ: What are the compositions like? Does it sound like Beck in the songwriting?
DJ: It’s many styles. Some of it sounds like the 1930s and has an old-timey feel. Some songs are epic. There are two instrumentals that sound like they are from another planet. They are incredibly difficult and really strange. It’s all over the map. I think you can tell he wasn’t making a satire of songs or trying to make a cool art project for the sake of making a cool art project. He wrote 20 good, interesting songs. They feel like Beck songs. You can tell he put his heart into it in his own really strange way.
IJ: How was it for the band to learn?
DJ: For this group, everybody is classically trained so it came together pretty easily. If we felt like we got the feel wrong we might do another take and take it in a different direction. By the time we finished the recording, the songs were still evolving. That was the fun thing about this project, there was no definitive sound for the songs since they had never been recorded.
My feeling from reading what Beck said, his idea was that he wants people to experiment. We were the first to release all 20 songs and there is a lot of room to experiment. I think the coolest versions of the songs are yet to come, like the avant garde metal and new age stuff. He doesn’t want someone to sound like his voice, he wants to see what people do with his songs, not mimic his sound.
IJ: You recently released “Homage,” an album of hip-hop covers. What was that like?
DJ: It’s a fun challenge to bring things out of one culture and bring it into another while still retaining the life, energy and action of the culture. Hip-hop is the most vibrant musical culture on earth, like it or hate it, and classical is the most vibrant creative form from yesterday, so it’s like time traveling in a way. We hear things they have in common with classical music. The modern-day hip-hop producers really are the unsung composers in our society.
IJ: Do the audiences get it? Or are the listeners typically not the same as your average hip-hop listener?
DJ: The audiences are diverse. We get the people who get it and we get the people who don’t get it. We just played Kanye West for a bunch of grandmas and they didn’t know what song it was or who made it, but they liked it. It builds another bridge to what we find that is inherent in all types of music. You know a good song when you hear it.