In the spring of 2009, I watched Andrew Bird play his particularly haunting, stirring melodies before a live over-capacity audience at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas. I sat in the balcony, near the back, with my wife. It was a theater that—in that embarrassing way—is one that I feel I've been partly raised by. Embarrassing because the assertion itself is the sort of thing a college student would say, and then, in the years that follow, cringe for having said it.
Back in college, not so long ago (but so long ago) this theater was a weekly staple of my schedule. I remember being a member of these sweaty glowing crowds, ardent in our quiet respect as the giants of music made what seemed to be their favorite stop along their American tear. There were discarded set lists and extra encores. I would often spill forth from the doors afterward, ready to make work (or drink) with great spirit. Be it for music or movies, I could be trusted to emerge from those doors speaking in superlative, inspired tones. I was young, and I was learning what I loved.
So it was an odd experience to sit there with my wife, occasionally glancing over and thinking that this person next to me, who knows me better than anyone in the room, now or then, wasn't a part of any of that. She was somewhere else, having her own Liberty Hall.
It was also odd that we were there to see a musician I became interested in since those years; in fact we both liked him. And yet, at least for me, his music (all of it) feels as though it is from just such a honey-laden phase of one's life as the heady college years of an American from the Midwest. It is rich with nostalgia, longing, and decidedly un-modern sounds. The music feels as though it could be the romantic accompaniment for my college years, fast-fading from my memory. And more still, his music even seems to hint at the phases of life prior. Bird whistles me to childhood, his strings remind me of being a boy that dreamt of the future.
This is all to say the experience was weird. I felt nervous. Unsettled as I tried to put a calm hand to my wife's knee, waiting through the opening act. An anxiety of having forgotten something, of wondering if I was fiddling with things that had been written and fixed, as though I might look up and find a time-traveling version of myself flung innocently forward to meet me and ruin us both in a bang of paradox. But no, all survived.
Up until then, when I visited Lawrence, I would usually see familiar faces. But this time I didn’t. I wasn't sad to have missed anyone in particular, besides most of them were finally elsewhere. And in general I am one who would just assume go unseen. But I was sad to have reached the moment of no longer being familiar. Where am I familiar now? To whom am I familiar? What city do I walk the streets of, feeling certain I am a recipient of their warmth? Those are questions I had asked before, and had grown comfortable with their answers. In short, life's linear phases do not trade in units of progress; qualities of life that are extant in a previous time aren't promised in any time or place thereafter. I will one day wonder at how particular the flavor of 2014 is by comparison to the life I am leading then.
So what of the music? The music I heard and saw is what impelled the crude notes I scrawled that night—and the broad strokes of rumination above are guided by their fading urgency in my memory. But the strength of my response was not for reasons as romantic as those melodies might imply. No, the defining wave of feeling had nothing to do with past times, places, or the nostalgia that binds them. Instead it raised thoughts within of everything to do with me now, where I am, and where I wish to go.
For the uninitiated, one ought to know that Andrew Bird creates his music alone. Through the use of multitrack recorders and loop pedals, Bird layers one instrument upon the next, with anything (save for drums), and with mastery. Truly, it is haunting to see that sort of genius produce such workable sound, and I believe it is for this reason that his "band" even exists at times—he doesn't need them—to quell the fear of an audience stirred into awe and fright by a man alone with his great cacophony. It is strange until it’s beautiful, and just as soon it’s even stranger.
That night, watching Bird refuse to cede control of any one element of his sound, propping skill atop skills, each ability developed daily and long ago, I was left encouraged for the first time in years to be precisely the maker of things I wish to be. I too have a distrust for hands other than my own, and a need to make more than one kind of sound. Gripped by the vision of him groping each instrument, his legs shaking, his voice quivering—not simply with romance but with talent, with hard work, and with the daily practice of forgetting in order to set himself apart.
Only a person that devotes their life to the creative pursuit, publicly or secretly, knows of this forgetting. Each day, one such as Bird must forget the conventional wisdom. That cliché comes in the form of a commandment given early on: You must choose one tool. The difficulty comes with maturity, as challenges surface, and one realizes this conventional wisdom is simply wisdom. You do only have so much time. Great work comes from hard work and extraordinary focus, and it follows a pattern of artists devoting their life to the mastery of something singular and precise. There is nothing false about this wisdom that the wisest makers constantly and implicitly lay at our dreaming heads. But to be like them, we must forget. Among the many sacrifices an artist must make to further his craft, one I rarely hear of is the fact that wisdom too—one way or another—will be sacrificed if the artist owns his need.
But now, five years since that show and the notes I hurried onto paper—I realize there was more to the punch. The lessons I learned are true, but it was something else that led me to learn. It was the music. The beating heart of music from a man who had clearly succeeded and struggled with love, seen unforgettable sites, studied light, worried over bills, adored people, delighted in afternoons. Hurt, and hurt more. Perhaps his work is its own reward for him, I don’t know. But it does not exist without his life.
Beneath all the overwrought posturing and explanations, the only work I’m ever compelled to make comes from a place of deep fascination with my own existence. I want to do all I can to further that work—to perfect its edges, to tighten its weave. I want to threaten and sometimes even waste that work’s progress with long breaks with my wife, walking further than we ever proposed. With unexpected travel. Unplanned meals with my friend at bars we’re too old for. With urgency and stillness. The years before us; the people, the work. Our Liberty Hall.