Although he is classically trained, virtuosic violinist and expert whistler Andrew Bird has never had much use for musical notation. “I just always saw the written note as an unnecessary middleman between me and the song,” says Bird.
It makes sense. Bird was raised as a student of the Suzuki Method of musical instruction. The system, designed by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, was inspired by the ability many young children have to learn not only their native tongue, but additional languages as well. Instead of focusing on the reading of notation and the understanding of theory, the Suzuki Method seeks to fostering a more intuitive connection to music. And it worked for Bird.
“It was like learning another language or picking up an accent,” he says of his early years playing violin.
The music-as-a-second-language metaphor seems even more appropriate when considering Bird’s whistling. Bird is recognized for his ability to produce pitch-perfect melodies using nothing but his pursed lips and a little bit of air. It is a pure, direct and highly intimate connection to music.
“That’s why I’ve always responded more to oral traditions,” Bird says, by way of explanation.
Even when he comes close to producing classical music, he demonstrates an affinity for breaking from convention. On his instrumental album Echolocations: Canyon, he strums and scratches at the strings of his violin, deploys effects pedals and sampling, and whistles to mimic birds and other natural sounds. He intentionally seeks out the atonal and off-kilter tones so often shunned by the academy as imprecise, but embraced by folk, indie and punk musicians as emotive and true.
Even as Bird pursued his musical career into the conservatory—studying violin at Northwestern University—he would spend his nights sitting in with Irish folk bands, playing for boisterous pub crowds in Chicago. “I was doing all this music where you show someone your idea by just playing it for them,” Bird says, explaining that he’s always been more comfortable playing by ear. “My ear was so attuned to that from an early age that there’s a part of my brain that focuses on the ear.”
Over the course of 13 full-length albums—the latest being 2016’s Are You Serious—and plenty of touring, Bird has made his fair share of celebrity connections. He began leveraging those relationships last year, in the wake of Are You Serious, by launching a new Facebook-broadcast video series, Live From The Great Room.
So far the show has featured the likes of My Morning Jacket frontman and solo artist Jim James; Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers and the newly instated host of A Prairie Home Companion; and The Lumineers.
Most recently, Bird brought comedian, actor and pianist Zach Galifianakis onto the show. The revealing conversation finds the two men covering a wide range of topics—from jokes to serious ruminations. “Your music has always made me cry,” Galifianakis says.
Though the comedian follows the admission with a nervous laugh, it is clearly a moment of sincerity. Indeed, the free-flowing conversation ultimately hits upon topics and revelations that are often impossible to pull out in the brief 20-minute phone interviews that artists like Bird regularly grant press outlets. And that’s intentional.
“I wasn’t really satisfied with how the promotional campaign was going,” Bird says, referring to his press junkets in wake of Are You Serious’ release—a highly personal album, which was difficult to open up about with perfect strangers. “I wanted to set up a situation where musicians ask the questions they don’t get asked by journalists.”
Then he hit upon the idea of chatting one-on-one with fellow creatives, in a comfortable setting and with more time to “kinda geek out on some stuff.” The results speak for themselves.
In the Galifianakis interview alone, the pair discuss the synergy and creative tensions that arise when comedians and musicians work together; how comedians are “the new folk singers,” the inspiration behind the title of Bird’s Are You Serious; and the creeping corperatization of artistic expression.
Jun 30, 7pm, $36+
Mountain Winery, Saratoga