Pop-Up Magazine's "The Song Reader Issue" Celebrates Music Written, Remembered, and Reinvented

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Pop-Up Magazine has become the It event for the Bay Area's hipster intelligentsia, particularly those adept at hitting refresh during the 15-minute window before tickets sell out online. Monday night's tenth incarnation of the live magazine was a special collaboration between Pop-Up, McSweeney's, and the musician Beck.

The one-night only event has grown out of its original Brava Theater venue and now fills Davies Symphony Hall. With no print (or digitized) footprint, Pop-Up Magazine thrives on being live, impermanent, and offline, "We like the idea that a super wired community might unplug for a couple of hours," said editor Douglas McGray.

Monday night's "Song Reader Issue" was inspired by Beck's Song Reader, a collection of sheet music written by Beck and published by McSweeneys. The print edition of Song Reader is a beautiful assemblage of neo-vintage sheet music for songs written by Beck, to be performed by anyone but him. These songs don't appear on any Beck album and they have no definitive rendition. It's a project in musical populism that invites folks to play it themselves.

The latest Pop Up Magazine issue featured, among other things, musical performances from Song Reader. As Beck explained, Song Reader is "an album that could only be heard by playing the songs." With its evocative, old-timey cover art by artists like Marcel Dzama, the volume harkens back to a time before people purchased recordings, be they LPs, CDs or iTunes files. And yet it's a project that has also been enhanced by technology; musicians can post their own performances of the songs to Song Reader's official website.

Douglas McGray said Beck's project and the Pop-Up concept are kindred spirits. "He's making something that's kind of like an album that's actually a book, and we're doing something that's kind of like a magazine but it's actually a show," said McGray. "There's a natural affinity." Pop-Up doesn't usually do theme issues, but McGray said he wanted to use Song Reader as a jumping-off point for "a really broad eclectic investigation of music, how it works and how it matters to us and what it means in our lives and where its come from."


Yes, there was lots of exciting music in the show. Ledisi, John Reilly and Friends, The Kronos Quartet, and Beck all performed. But, as McGray promised, the show also featured segments on the science of sound, the sounds of silence, tonal experiments, instrument demonstrations, profiles of pioneers, and reflections on forgotten performers.

Each Pop-Up Magazine I've been lucky enough to snag a ticket to has presented a varied array of spoken stories. Many of the pieces in this most recent issue reflected a common wistfulness and often a collective nostalgia. There's a powerful emotional connection between music and memory and many of the performers spoke of this. Author Laurel Braitman talked about discovering her father's love for the song "Unchained Melody" shortly before he died. And when we hear The Righteous Brothers sing it, we can experience her own pining.

We can appreciate Daniel Handler's disappointment when he described a time that he didn't get to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite band, Eurythmics, on MTV. And we have a new appreciation for Charlie Rich when journalist Joe Hagan shares letters written by Charlie Rich fan club members. "The Most Beautiful Girl" may have been a corny song on the radio, but it meant a lot to a lot of people and fandom is something most of us can relate to.

The show's musical numbers featured some wonderful performances reflecting a wide range of Beck interpretations. The Song Reader website presents a variety of versions but listening to Ledisi sing "Do We? We Do", it's hard to imagine this isn't her own song. Eclectic, eccentric ensembles such as The International Space Orchestra and the Green Street Mortuary Band also performed. Styles ranged from folk to big band, from indie to electronica. Fusion hybrids encompassed Ethiopian influences, Chinese instruments, jazz strains and kid rockers. Beck himself was pared down, unplugged, and melodious. His performances sounded a bit like R.E.M. at times. He has written that he was inspired to write the sheet music when he realized that his past albums, full of samples, screams and found sounds, couldn't be transcribed into playable notes.

In between all of this, writer Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) interviewed Beck in an on-stage Q&A session. She noted that music has never been as "disembodied" as it is now and so Beck's tangible sheet music is a "contrarian" undertaking. "I think there's something human in sheet music, 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," Beck has written. The Song Reader project has the distinction of being very modern and very old school. Whether you put the sheet music on your piano stand or upload it to a website, it is essentially an open-source enterprise. Pop-Up Magazine's take on Song Reader gives the music yet another platform.

Song Reader is available online at store.mcsweeneys.net. Visit the album's official website to upload your own versions of the songs at songreader.net. And for tickets to the next, as yet unannounced issue of Pop-Up Magazine visit popupmagazine.com.