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Andrew Bird: Journey to Echolocations

On January 8, 2016

by Rudolph Santarromana

I want you all to experience some new music this weekend. Take your Vinyl Me, Please album of the month, your cocktail, and sit in a room with a window. Place that needle in the groove, and listen to a complete album. Put that phone in airplane mode, and unplug from the world.

We live in an increasingly digital world. We’re used to getting what we want promptly. You can get any information you need within seconds, and kids today won’t know the struggle of actually owning a dictionary or having to learn how to do something without a helpful youtube video. Have you ever wanted to learn a song on guitar or piano and looked up the notes or chords to do so without ever sitting down and trying to learn the whole of the instrument? I admit I have done it before. We get caught in a trap of being so focused on the end-game that we can sometimes forget how important the journey or the experience as a whole is. But it’s that journey that creates modern-day musical geniuses. This type of holistic view at music is embodied in the Suzuki Method of training in music.

What is the Suzuki Method, you ask?

The Suzuki Method is based on the way we learn our first language as an infant (it is also called the ‘mother tongue’ method). We have no prior understanding of language as a basis, but still, we come to understand language. This is done by starting at a young age and surrounding the child with the environment that they can imitate. We speak to babies, and teach them names by repeating “mommy” and “daddy” at them until they imitate those sounds to produce “mama” and “dada.” Rather than tell the baby they are wrong, constant positive reinforcement of those small wins lead the child to slowly improve on their skills, until eventually “mama” becomes “mother” and “dada” becomes “father,” and this is all done before they even learn to read. Once there is a basic understanding, then the child begins to read and write. There are no tests, levels of achievement, or measures of mastery in the way we learn language and this is how the Suzuki Method goes about teaching the ‘language of music’.

Chicago native Andrew Bird is a Suzuki Method contemporary through whom it becomes clear the type of musician this method can develop. He began playing a version of the violin made out of a shoebox at the age of four. According to Bird:

“I’m really grateful that the style of Suzuki I grew up with was pretty true to the ‘learning by ear’ and the ‘mother tongue’ concept. That’s had a huge impact on the kind of musician that I am.

If reading were the emphasis, I think I would’ve turned out different. The notes were there in front of us but they were just kind of part of the ceremony of playing. It was purely by ear. Then we had group lessons and private lessons once a week and it was very social. My mother was very engaged. She would come to everything and she actually started playing (violin) with me the first year.

I’m more grateful for the Suzuki Method than any musical opportunity that I’ve had.

Musically, what is most important about it is that, since I didn’t learn to read music right away, I made a direct connection to what was in my head. That allows the music to not just go in my ear but also come out of my head and onto my instrument. And as a writer, composer and improviser—when I made that leap from classical rep to folk music or jazz over the years, it was not a big leap. And I saw other musicians around—people at conservatory—that couldn’t move left or right without the written notes.”

With a looping board, multiple instruments, and an ability to whistle any melody imaginable, he is truly a one-man orchestra who gains inspiration from all things surrounding music. Bird explains in his TED talk how even things like ‘self-destructive’ feedback loops that occur when a mic and speaker are too close together can inspire him, as in the song “Eyeoneye.” In his words, the song is about “the person who’s been so successful at protecting themselves from heartbreak that they end up doing the deed themselves.” Beyond the songwriting, he pays a special attention to detail regarding his live performances. Acoustically, each venue has nuances in the sound produced, and to musicians like Andrew Bird, these nuances factor in to each performance. According to Bird, “Now when I’m on tour playing a different theater every night we ‘tune’ the room, hunting down the bass traps and the standing waves to give the listener the most even and wide spectrum of sound. There are certain frequencies that resonate while others are lifeless. Sometimes the room refuses to yield and I have to consider playing different songs that will work in that room” ( Andrew Bird goes on a world tour this spring, and if he comes to an area near you, I highly recommend attending.

This winter, Andrew Bird resumed his intimate “Gezelligheid” performances (Dutch word that roughly translates to ‘cozy’ or ‘quaint’) on four consecutive nights at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, and I was in attendance. This was not the first time I had seen him live, but I would say it was my favorite performance. Before the doors opened, security went down the line and asked everyone to not use their phones for pictures, videos, recordings of any kind, or any use whatsoever—it was, after all, in a church. And honestly, a recording would not do justice to the experience. It would be like telling a story, seeing the unimpressed look on your audience (even though I cannot see your faces now) and ending with, “you had to be there,” which I’m sure we’ve all done before, so I’ll save myself from going down that path. What I will say is that the attention to detail was apparent, both acoustically and visually, and they came together well with the intimate atmosphere of the event. After all, every show has a story tied to it that encapsulates the overall experience.

With the idea of one’s surroundings in mind, “A new ongoing project of [Bird’s] called Echolocations is an extension of Gezelligheid where [he] ‘plays to the room’ whether it be a canyon in Utah or an 18th century aqueduct in Lisbon.” The first in the ‘Echolocations’ series was released earlier this year. Echolocations: Canyon was recorded in the Coyote Gulch canyons of Utah. Listen closely, and you can hear the echo on the stone canyon wall, and what sounds like a stream of water on the ground in this ambient composition. Future planned installments of Echolocations include: River, City, Lake, and Forest.

Making of Echolocations: Canyon

Soundcloud of Echolocations: Canyon

Andrew Bird continues to create and record music and is a huge proponent of musical participation in youth stemming from the positive experiences he had as a child. Bird played at The Hideout at the culmination his 2015 Gezelligheid series in Chicago and all of the proceeds went toward the Andrew Bird Scholarship that is set up to pay for music lessons for students at the Chicago High School for the Arts. He says, “Music makes your life richer… It creates different people with different values. Values that go deeper than the pursuit of money and material things.”

So next time you’re trying to get somewhere, consider your journey and the benefits the experience may bring. Involve all your senses and be present in the moment. Those experiences can lead to something fuller than what you had initially intended. For Andrew Bird, music is more than the right combination of sounds and instruments—it reflects your surroundings too. After all, music is an experience, right? That’s why we love vinyl records. The weight of the record in our hands, appreciating the large album artwork, the beauty of the black, pink, purple, red, or clear record itself, and hearing those first few crackles while the needle finds its groove all let you know it’s real. A digital phone screen cannot offer an experience like that.



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