Violinist and experimental artist Andrew Bird has just released Echolocations: River, the second in a five-part series of instrumental releases documenting site-specific compositions based on the properties of various soundscapes. He created the first one, Echolocations: Canyon inside the Coyote Gulch canyons of Utah. The next three are tentatively entitled City, Lake, and Forest. He recorded River at the Los Angeles River.
As the album’s title suggests, the music has an organic feel. The ambient sounds of the waterway combine with Bird’s playing and use of sonic effects to create a heightened sense of tranquility. The eight tracks have names that reflect the harmony of environment and more than half refer to specific species of birds (“The Cormorants”, “Lazuli Bunting”, “Black-Crowned Night-Heron”, “Dear Killdear” and “The Green Heron”). Whether the reference to fowl is a take-off on his name — does he see himself in the birds because they share a moniker — or is a coincidence is unclear. It may be synchronicity or a Freudian slip. Whatever personal meaning Bird may find is overshadowed by the pastoral quality of the tracks themselves. The music presents itself as more than just nature sounds. Bird is an active participant in the process.
In fact, Bird doesn’t sit by the side of the river but wades in ankle deep and wanders. This sense of movement keeps the recording from sounding stagnant. He begins by invoking “The Cormorants” with a fanfare that resembles the call of the actual fowl, but soon moves from the external stimulus to a more personal response. He picks the strings first to recreate the excitement of witnessing and then begins to bow as his emotions take on a life of their own. There is a spirituality about the whole thing.
By the time he gets to track six, “Down Under the Hyperion Bridge”, the music recalls what has come before. It’s the album’s most extended track, almost 10 minutes long, and bits of past riffs re-emerge in a slightly stronger form as if being there inspires a confident reflection. By the end of the piece the music also seems to cry. It invokes a hankering for something meaningful. Being in the river may inspire a feeling of connection to a larger spirit but the purpose of life, the natural world, making music, etc. remains a mystery.
After all, Bird is taking a journey even if he is wandering more than headed to a particular destination. The 40 minutes worth of music here provide an auditory escape into being at another place at another time, but the unstated assumption is that we are always traveling and always being if we just pay attention. Bird arranges his trip as one we too can experience. The journey itself is the destination.