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Andrew BIrd Meets Jeffrey Brown

July 23, 2008

A dear old friend of mine in London, Matthew, was browsing about on my blog the other day and read my post about tuning into the terrific London Calling radio show on my way home one dark Tuesday night.

In the spirit of discovering new things, Matthew sweetly sent me information about two very different artists whose work is intersecting in an unusual way.

The first is Andrew Bird, a singer-songwriter and classically-trained violinist, whose spiraling, whimsical songs get under the listener's skin from the very first hearing. Matthew sent me two tracks -- "11.11" and "Headsoak". I was instantly hooked. I love the singer's doleful voice and spiraling string lines. His music is gentle in some ways, but there's fire in this guy's belly. I gather he'll be performing at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco on August 24 (Radiohead's performing the day after.) I may have to stump up $85 for a ticket.

Matthew also alerted me to comic book artist Jeffrey Brown. Brown's frank, open-hearted and down-to-earth style has the same whimsical quality as many of the Bird songs I've heard so far. Matthew also sent me a few pages from one of Brown's comics in which the author hears one of Bird's songs in a cafe one day and then endeavors to try to find the name of the song and the person who wrote it. The song gets welded in his memory and has powerful associations for his life. It's a delightful read.

The relationship between Brown's auto-biographical character in the comic strip and Bird's songs drew Daniel Levitin's great book This Is Your Brain On Music to mind. In the book, Levitin talks about how songs trigger powerful memories and what mechanisms in the brain -- which center on "multiple-trace memory models" -- help to contribute to this phenomenon. I sent Matthew a couple of pages from the book. Here's a taster:

A maxim of memory theory is that unique cues are the most effective at bringing up memories; the more items or contexts a particular cue is associated with, the less effective it will be at bringing up a particular memory. That is why, although certain songs may be associated with certain times in your life, they are not very effective cues for retrieving memories from those times if the songs have continued to play all along and you're accustomed to hearing them -- as often happens with classic rock stations or classical radio stations that rely on a somewhat limited repertoire of "popular" classical pieces. But as soon as we hear a song that we haven't heard since a particular time in our lives, the flood-gates of memory open and we're immersed in memories. The song has acted as a unique cue, a key unlocking all the experiences associated with the memory for the song, its time and place."

This makes sense. I wouldn't be surprised if whenever I hear an Andrew Bird song or come across a Jeffrey Brown comic strip, Matthew pops into my head.

P.S. Something you should know about Matthew: When he's not being a doctor, he helps out at a hip-hop karaoke night in London. For some pictures and information about the event, click here.

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