Turning even Dig skeptics into believers
This past December, musician Beck Hansen released his new album—a collection of 20 original tracks, in the form of a songbook. Reactions varied from the skeptical to the enthused. DigBoston published a preview of Song Reader in which I wrote, “It’s hard to get away from the fact that the book is completely inaccessible to anyone who can’t read music … Beck puts a lot of faith in his audience.
In the months since, the skeptics (myself included) have been proven wrong, and Beck’s fans have proved worthy of the challenge. The album spawned a website (songreader.net) where hundreds of amateur and professional musicians have published their interpretations of the richly arranged pieces. The Portland Cello Project recorded the whole album and made it available for streaming on NPR.
And on Feb. 28, Song Reader will be performed live in its entirety at the Somerville Theatre, with over 150 local musicians and dancers, plus 20 pieces of new choreography.
The elaborate undertaking is the brainchild of guitarist Brendan Burns, 36, and dancer/performance artist Karin Webb, 34 (known professionally as Burns & Webb). Surprisingly, it was the dancer, not the musician, who concocted the idea back in August, after reading about the project in Forbes Magazine.
“My first passion, as a performer, is performing with live musicians,” Webb explained on a recent afternoon at Dwelltime Coffeebar in Cambridge. She leans intently on the table while Burns sits with his lanky frame folded in on itself. Their dynamic is even more apparent in video footage of a rehearsal for the show: Burns hunches over his guitar with his legs crossed while Webb cavorts across the floor, shoulders rolling and limbs flung wide.
Of course, before any collaboration, the musicians had to learn the material inside and out—a daunting task, according to Burns. “I think everyone went through the stage of despair,” he says with a laugh.
“We would play through [the songs], and then we would dig deeper,” he continued.
“There’s a point where the artistry of the individual musicians starts to reinterpret it.”
The difficulty of the endeavor seemed to inspire almost absurd levels of creativity among the talent. The singer-songwriters Sarah Rabdau and Peter Moore filmed an intimate music video in their basement studio. The singer Krissy Skare arranged one of the songs for a 50-person choir, which, fittingly, will perform a cappella at the event.
The dancers range from percussive prodigies (the Boston Tap Company) to contemporary dance companies (Contrapose Dance) to mainstays of the Boston-area burlesque scene (Sugar Dish, Femme Bones, Mary Widow).* “I wanted to create a playground where people could really open up their talents and say something outside of what they normally have to say,” said Webb.
At its heart, Song Reader is an attempt to break away from canned music and bring people together in a shared creative experience. “Start with this one guy, who made these things, and wrote them down in a book,” explained Webb. “And then you take all these people who take the book and make it into sounds, and then you take these sounds and a bunch of people get on their feet and do things with the sounds, and then you get a bunch of people in an audience, looking at it—”
“and there you’ve created the fire, and the community.”
* SINCE GOING TO PRINT, WE’VE FOUND OUT THERE WILL BE BURLESQUE IN THE SHOW. SO GET READY FOR AN ADDED DOSE OF SEXY.
BECK’S SONG READER LIVE