Hoptellectual: Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Structure

I was a senior sitting in a small, 1994 Ford Ranger in the parking lot of my high school when I first heard Andrew Bird singing about a “Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left.” The girl I was dating at the time put it on a mix that opened a new world of music to me and began my fascination and love of Andrew Bird. I remember distinctly the first time I listened to the song it sounded disjointed and eccentric to the point I could barely get through it. But as I cycled through the heartfelt CD again and again I began craving the eccentricity of Bird with its overlapping loops of guitar, violin, glockenspiel and whistling.

I followed Bird with each new album as he honed his skills at layering riffs into sweeping sonic landscapes that spoke of complexity. His newest album, “Noble Beast,” captured Bird at the peak of his abilities, but it is his live shows that are the most astounding as a fan. Like many jazz musicians, Bird is never tethered to how his songs proceed on his album. Instead, Bird’s shows are experimentation in feedback loops in order to create new structures for his popular songs. He challenges the listener to follow him as he delves into the unfamiliar only to bind the series of simple riffs together with one master riff.

Bird’s method feeds off the same property of feedback loops that is described in Professor Timothy Allen’s book, Hierarchy Theory, in which Allen describes the formation of emergent structure. When a system enters into a positive feedback loop, the building energy can cause either collapse downward from instability or collapse upward into a new emergent structure. The example used in Allen’s book is the formation of a whirlpool. When you have a steep gradient, like the force of gravity forcing water to equilibrium through a small valve, it only takes a slight disturbance to create a new structure to dissipate the built up energy. While Allen uses this as a broad systems theory and applies it to ecology, Bird demonstrates that it can even apply to music. You can certainly imagine riffs piling on top of each other with off notes clashing and collapsing the whole melody into dysfunction, but Bird often plays off-notes on purpose, incorporating the “error” note into the whole and creating a new structure for the song.

Perhaps being conscious of the feedback loops working around us in music, art, science and the environment can better help us anticipate how to deal with disturbances. Does it make sense for us to try to incorporate them into the system? Or should we simply start over from scratch? These choices face us everyday and are not easy to solve, but we can manage our reaction to the situations with better understanding.

Feedbacks make things complex, so won’t you collapse with us? Follow us on Twitter @MidwestBeer or on Facebook.

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