Singing with Beck

Graphic Design, Music, Uncategorized

This review was published in Eye magazine in summer 2013 ♦ 

Berlin's Haunted House, 1914

Berlin’s Haunted House, 1914

Just over a hundred years ago the music business experienced its first major crisis. The success of new gramophone records played on a hand-cranked turntable with an overbearing horn, sounded the beginning of the end of popular sheet music, the business’s most profitable product at the time. In their heyday, scores for sentimental tunes and patriotic marches printed between vivid illustrated covers, sold in tens of thousands of copies.

The graphic products of Tin Pan Alley offered musicians considerable latitude. In an age before sound recordings, there was no authoritative version against which the player in the parlour could judge his or her performance. When the gramophone, and later the radio, became a standard feature of the home, the decline was not immediate: sales of sheet music were given a lift by the popularity of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s, for example. Nevertheless, the fate of sheet music was, it seems, sealed.

beck-fullcoverToday, the music business faces another crisis as record companies and high-street retailers struggle to find ways to persuade people to pay for recorded music. The Internet has turned what the industry used to call ‘product’ into a stream of code for downloading. Artists try to turn fans into consumers by issuing deluxe versions of their albums, often packaging their LPs with weighty books and films. At the end of last year, American musician Beck Hanson issued his most recent album as a ‘Song Reader’, a collection of twenty songs. What makes his project unique (at least when viewed from the present), was that this album is only available as sheet music in a beautifully designed folding portfolio. Each score features cover artwork by illustrators, often picking up the wistful mood of the songs. ‘The Last Polka’, an angular composition for piano in a musical genre which has not been fashionable for at least a century, and ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’, a plaintive song for a jilted lover, are both packaged with illustrations from Peter Gamelen, a young British illustrator living in the US. The melancholic atmosphere which Gamelen brings to his drawings of moonlit rooms and empty streets in the dusk of Depression-era America lends itself well to Beck’s nostalgic project.

Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ began life in conversations with Dave Eggers, the writer and founder of McSweeny’s, the marvelously idiosyncratic publishing house. But the project has deeper roots: Beck has a track record as pop musicologist. ‘One Foot in the Grave’, an early album, for instance, opens with a traditional black spiritual played on a steel-string guitar. But the ‘Song Reader’, as a musical and graphic project, is not an exercise in historical authenticity. Sensitive to the traditional form of sheet music – three or four pages contained within simple covers – Beck and art director, Walter Green (a McSweeny’s designer) also bring a touch of wry humour to the project. The back pages of each sheet features convincingly retrospective adverts for products for music lovers like the harmonically-tuned needles for seamstress and scores for ‘Instrumentals for the End of the World’. America’s love with its own ‘age of innocence’ – evident in Hollywood films and the hokey homespun rhetoric of her politicians – is gently mocked and celebrated at the same time. This places Beck in a long tradition of liberal artists including Bob Dylan, Robert Crumb, and Ben Katchor who find values and sentiments in the American past which are missing or distorted in the present.

By only issuing the ‘Song Reader’ as scores, Beck invites musicians to interpret his songs. In fact, in a thoughtful preface on the challenges of writing music which depends on other people to play it, Beck makes an observation which chimes with the recent fascination with participation in art and design: ‘There’s something human in sheet music’ he writes, ‘something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it – it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it. That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project.’ Perhaps Beck writes off technology a little too quickly, for the Internet has provided McSweeny’s with the means for the players of these songs to share their recordings with the world. Its Soundcloud pages have been filling in the weeks since publication with dozens of different versions of Beck’s songs. Some are recast as ambient house or chamber music, whilst others follow the ‘trad.’ piano and ukulele arrangements provided in the ‘Song Reader’. Neither is more or less authentic than the other. Beck and his many ‘song readers’ have achieved together an exceptional union of the material world of the printed score and the dematerialized world of digital music.


Honzík – how high the sky?

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

This is an extract of a talk which I will present at the ‘Afterlives of Constructivism‘ conference at Princeton University in May 2013 ♦ At the height of the period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia in the mid 1960s, architects began imagining the kind of ambitious projects for cities and buildings that went far beyond the official imperative to build ‘economically and quickly’ and eschewed the technocratic role given to architecture in socialism. As architect and critic Jiři Hrůza argued – perhaps boldly – his 1967 book The Utopian City (Město Utopistů), surveying many speculative projects including those designed by Leonidov and Chernikov in the 1920s as well as those of his contemporaries such as Karel Honzík, the future could operate as a critique of the present: ‘Just as we can find in the concepts of utopian architectural avant-garde both audacious and prescient anticipations of the future, we can also find escapism from the coarse and prosaic reality of life, an ideal dream formed in disillusionment with the present …‘.[i] To find a way out from this kind of impoverishment, Hrůza directed his readers to science fiction. There they might discover a rich vein of imagination unfettered by mundane concerns.


Honzik’s, Creation of Lifestyle, 1946

Honzík (to whom Hrůza’s book was dedicated) could supply both architecture and sci-fi. A prolific essayist, architect and former member of Devětsil, who had designed numerous functionalist buildings before the Second World War, he had welcomed the new order in Czechoslovakia at the end of the conflict. His early post-war writings – like the introduction to Creation of Lifestyle (Tvorba životního slohu, 1946) – is full of parallels between the Czechoslovak present and Russia after the October Revolution. In 1949 he published a letter in Volné směry which made his modernist affinities clear: ‘I firmly believe that new and truly full realism can be achieved only by those artists who have absorbed the seeking and experimentation of the last fifty years.’[ii] The claim on experimentation was a call for intellectual freedom. The editor of the journal published a series of sharply disapproving responses from prominent champions of the new order, some of whom had once been Honzík’s close allies and collaborators. And so under considerable pressure, like Syrkus in Poland, he disavowed his past by writing an essay for the architectural press with the title ‘The Final Farewell to Thirty Years of Constructivism.’[iii]



A few years later after the prohibition on modernism had been lifted, Honziík, then unwell and in semi-retirement, began working on experimental housing schemes. His designs self-consciously revive the idea of the collective home as a single megastructure, a preoccupation of Soviet architects at the end of 1920s (cf Barshch and Valdimirov’s schemes c. 1929-30). Honzík’s vision for ‘vertical community’ living, ‘Domurbia’ (1962-64) took the form of three massive blocks connected by high bridges and a common service zone on the lower floors. All human needs of the 2000 inhabitants – social, health, educational and domestic – would be served in one structure. This proposition, though still unbuildable, had little of the imaginative reach to warrant the label ‘experimental’ or ‘utopian’ – this baton had been passed to ambitious young architects designing bravura socmodernist structures like the much-lauded television tower and hotel on the peak of the Ještěd mountain (Stavoprojekt, Liberec, 1963-73) or Slovak National Radio headquarters in Bratislava (Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling, 1962-85).


Trace in the Universe, published in the 1980s – after Honzik’s death.

Honzík’s architectural imagination had perhaps been debilitated by his experiences but it was still exercised vividly in his science-fiction novels and short stories written from the late 1950s (few of which were published during his lifetime – he died in 1966). His story, Trace in the Universe (Stopa ve Vesmíru) describes an ideal society of intelligent extra-terrestrial beings who have achieved full communism. War and private property are things of the past and the state has withered away. They live, unsurprisingly, in tower- cities. New buildings are manufactured and delivered to site by aeroplanes. Others have mobile facades. All needs are met by machines and, in an echo of his earlier writings, all consumption is governed by the rational principles of need. The beings who enjoy this world are not human: they have evolved from a squirrel-like progenitor. Honzík’s point being that all intelligent life would ultimately follow a path predicted by Marx towards communism.

How we assess the utopianism of such schemes in the 1960s in political terms is not clear. This ambiguity may well have even been strategic. Groups like Dvizhenie in Soviet Russia operated with official imprimatur, only occasionally falling foul of the patrons in the party/state. The group’s chief ideologue, Lev Nussberg, was a well-connected and skilful operator, adept at persuading the authorities to support the group’s projects. In the late 1960s, Dvizhenie’s works travelled abroad and were widely reported in the international press, providing vivid examples of the creativity of Soviet culture in the face of evidence of its ossification. At the same time, architects in Czechoslovakia – perhaps more than any other Eastern Bloc state – were able to convert their visions into daring architectural forms. Responsible for the Ještěd Television Tower, SIAL –around Karel Hubáček in the state architectural office, Stavoprojekt, in Liberec – also claimed privileges from the State by pressing their bona fides as loyal visionaries.[iv] Honzík was a loyalist too but in his science fiction one senses a desire to sustain restore the fantastic dimensions of Utopianism in the face of technocratic thinking. Might his paper worlds be understood as what Theodor Adorno called ‘negative utopias’, i.e., conditions or experiences which resist the foreclosure of the possibility of a completely new way of being?[v]  

[i] Hruza, 163.

[ii] Cited in Honzík, 2002

[iii] ‘Konečné rozloučení s třicetiletou érou konstruktivismu Architektura ČSR, 12, 1953, 141-144.

[iv] See Jiří Jiroutek, Fenomenen Ještěd (Liberec 2005) 66; see also ‘Excerpts from an interview with Karel Hubáček’, in Mašinisti, exh. cat., Fragner Gallery (Prague 1996)138.

[v] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, 2004) 176