Album Review: Andrew Bird’s “Echolocations: Canyon”

Songwriter and instrumentalist Andrew Bird has followed his own path since the start of his musical career in 2003. He has played in several bands, developed his own solo act in a variety of ways and gained a large following. He is known for his violin-centric indie-folk rock sound, which guided most of his releases — until his recent “Echolocations: Canyon.”

“Echolocations: Canyon,” released in 2015, is the first of a planned series of site-specific albums recorded in different natural locations. Bird travelled to the ravines of Coyote Gulch in Utah and created an improvisational soundscape spanning seven tracks, 51 minutes, using only his violin and electronics.

The music explores the different sonic qualities of the reverberant canyon, including many different violin techniques and song structures. Some are rhythmic, created with looping and effect pedals, and some are unstructured improvisations.

The first track, “Sweep the Field,” is a long monophonic call into the space above. It incorporates two of Bird’s favorite techniques, whistling and pizzicato, in unison. You can hear the sounds bouncing off of the massive rock walls surrounding Bird. It leads smoothly into “Groping The Dark,” the longest piece on the album, which moves through a looping structure obviously influenced by minimalism.

Another standout track is “The Return of Yawny,” a followup to his 2009 song “Yawny at the Apocalypse.” While this two-chord song is possibly the most repetitive track on the album, the atmosphere is convincing and the timbres of the soundscape keep it interesting. Bird shows his jazz influence as he improvises over the slow-flowing accompaniment with strong emotion and full tone. A second track that stands out to me, “Antrozous,” further shows off Bird’s quirky and varied style, featuring the unusual col legno technique (striking the strings with the back of the bow).

Just by listening, you can get a sense of Bird’s comfort and strength on his instrument. Many pop string players are neither experienced nor comfortable on their instruments, often drawing criticism from classically-trained musicians. Bird began to learn violin at age four and later studied violin performance at Northwestern University. He grew up surrounded by classical music and cites famous composers like Ravel and Bartók as his influences.

Bird’s thoughtful ear is as important as his musical technique. He has a strong ability to hear the ways in which sound interacts with space. In his words, “Ever since I was a child, I would test different spaces with my voice or whistle or violin. Whatever sound you make, it’s like a giant limb that can reach beyond your fingers.”

At times, it is hard to tell which sounds from “Echolocations: Canyon” were created onsite and which were created in studio production. While the violin dominates the musical texture of each song, there are often low drone pitches which seem to take away from the natural quality of the album, though this isn’t a negative; they work well for their respective songs.

If you want to learn more about this compelling album, search for the 8-minute accompanying film on YouTube. It shows Bird improvising while standing in a shallow creek facing the tall canyon walls. While most of Bird’s other releases are very different from “Echolocations: Canyon,” I would also recommend his 2009 album, “Noble Beast,” to anybody interested in further listening.