Invite a Bird Inside

Invite a Bird Inside

Like David Smooke, I have to say I got a chuckle or three from the Portlandia sketch in which smiling hipsters emblazon everything in arms’ reach with the silhouette of a bird. And like David, the problem of stock compositional “moves” weighs on my mind: What are the consequences of returning to a much-drawn-from personal well of musical ideas (at any level, from concrete material or sounds to formal or experiential shapes)? The joke of the Portlandia bit, of course, is that (spoiler alert) when a real bird enters the store, it causes a panic among the affronted employees and results in much physical comedy. Not only do the chipper shopkeepers lean heavily on a played-out design, treating it as a colorful panacea for consumer fatigue; they also venerate the anthropogenically friendlied likeness of an animal whose sudden appearance in the flesh terrifies them. Thus, the image of the bird is instrumentalized, but the bird itself disrupts the comfortable routines of production.

This is the dialectic of putting a bird on it. Similarly, the drive to return to familiar tropes and contours can be viewed as a tendency with two poles, each with a positive and a negative valence: On the one hand, relying compulsively and uncritically on favorite compositional gestures (or, more accurately, the memory of these gestures) plasters the image of the bird across the surface of a piece in a way that is unfair to the spirit of the original gesture and to whatever imagined immanence we grant the piece at hand…but it lends to a charmless object, an inert or uncharacteristic chunk of music, a profile that constructs the identity of its author. On the other, contending with the real live bird by analyzing and problematizing the gesture (through deconstruction, oversaturation, etc., etc.) can put the brakes on the process of composition and rupture the fabric of the piece…or it can spark a very fruitful and thought-provoking confrontation with one’s aesthetic that could pay long-term creative dividends.

The challenge, it seems to me, is navigating the distinction between the safe, predictable practice of putting a bird on one’s music and the chaotic, possibly destructive practice of introducing a bird into one’s music. I strive for the latter but too often find myself, like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, content with the former.

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