Moments after I met musician Andrew Bird for the first time, we took off our socks and shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded into the cold ankle-deep water of the Los Angeles River.
I held my audio recorder and a camera, and he held a violin.
I worried that the water would make me sick, but I tried not to reveal my anxieties. He didn’t seem phased by the supposedly polluted water.
“Other than the faint smell of ammonia, I don’t think the water is terrible. People would assume it’s pretty nasty. But it’s I think it’s pretty clean actually. And I think the wetlands help with that,” he said.
We met under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, one of the oldest bridges over the LA River, connecting Atwater Village and Silver Lake.
There, under the concrete arches, Andrew found the inspiration to record an eight-track instrumental LP of ambient field recordings and studio compositions. It’s called “Echolocations: River.”
“I go into these spaces and I think of it as echolocating the space. I’m creating a sonic map of the space. So I go in without much of a plan,” Bird said. “I find the frequencies that are giving me the most information, and I build compositions on those frequencies. The reflections, the echo, the reverb, is where I get the feedback from the environment.”
This is the second of Bird’s series of “Echolocations” albums. The previous album was recorded in the Coyote Gulch canyons of Utah.
The LA River was wild and untamed until a series of floods in the 1930s caused city engineers to channelize it. Now we’re trying to move back towards a more natural kind of river. And recording music in the river lets him explore that juxtaposition of nature and the city — especially, he said, in a city that tried to control nature and is now slowly reintroducing nature to an artificial environment.
“LA River was originally a natural river that then was turned into this concrete canal. And in the last 10 years or so they’ve tried to reintroduce nature to what is otherwise a pretty bleak landscape. And they’ve done a pretty good job,” Bird said.
Bird has been playing violin since he was four, and he sees this project as an attempt to get new sounds out of his instrument and how it resonates in the environment. He also sees this project as an outgrowth of the way he tests the acoustics of concert venues before a performance.
“Every day you’re always tuning your music to the room. There is this interplay going on, and sometimes I like to not force my batch of songs on that space, but say, OK, what does this room want to hear? And then I tailor the set that night,” he said.
Bird pointed out a row of concrete pilings where a bridge once crossed the river. It was the platform that the Red Car trolley used until 1955. Those pilings are now being used to build a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge between Silver Lake and Atwater Village. It’s a sign of the times, as the river becomes a destination for recreation and relaxation.
Besides the sound of rushing water, Bird also responded to the noise of traffic moving over the bridge. The rumble of car tires, and the sound of horns and radio mingled with the murmur of the flowing river.
“It’s a lot of white noise in here, so we tried to make that a bit of a character in the record. So sometimes it’s looped and you hear tones from combustible engines and sometimes I’m responding to that… The sound of squeaking brakes could trigger something,” he said.
The Chicago native moved from New York to Los Angeles four years ago with his wife, fashion designer Katherine Tsina, and their young son, Sam. He often rides his bike from their Los Feliz home past this spot on the LA River.
“The wild bird life down here is pretty amazing. There’s some fairly rare species. That’s why I ended up naming the songs after musical-sounding bird names,” he said.
Those track names include The Cormorants, Lazuli Bunting, Gypsy Moth, Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Dear Killdear and The Green Heron.
Bird strummed and plucked his violin and whistled as he tested the echoes underneath the arched bridge.
“What I found with these spaces is the swooping notes give me really interesting feedback. I think of it kind of like doing a weather radar scan of the space,” he said. “Right away I noticed that it had kind of a post-apocalyptic sound to it. It’s not acoustically perfect by any means.”
“I think those opposing concrete walls do create some standing waves. But when I went back to my studio I went more in — I mean it’s ambient music — but I took it in a little more dystopian direction.”
We often think of the river in visual terms, but not in sonic terms. So to create an audio portrait of a dystopian river while naming the songs after birds that inhabit the river reveals the contradictory nature of LA’s concrete flood channel in which nature is finding its place.