Andrew Bird (left) and Ian Schneller, partners in the MCA’s Sonic Arboretum, surrounded by Schneller’s custom-made speakers. For more photos, launch the gallery »
Andrew Bird lives life on the analog. The quirky 38-year-old art-folk composer and violinist shows up to a Chicago photo session on his bicycle, and in between tours, he retreats to a farm in western Illinois to tend his corn and soybeans. “When the wind blows through a field of soybeans, you get this auditory and visual effect,” he says. “I wanted to create a sense of that movement with the most minimal sound I can make.” Bird hopes to achieve precisely this feeling with a new composition he will write and perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art in December, while stationed in the midst of another sort of field entirely.
Coming from a guy who builds dizzying scores out of looped musical notes and phrases (as in 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha or 2009’s Noble Beast), this avowed desire for simplicity sounds like a 180. Until you meet Bird’s current collaborator, the bespectacled instrument maker Ian Schneller. Under the banner of his Humboldt Park company Specimen Products, the 50-year-old artisan is best known for building guitars and audio systems for the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Jack White. But for the past decade, Schneller has been quietly experimenting with a design for an octagonally fluted speaker that recalls an antique phonograph horn.
Handmade out of recycled newspaper, glue-fortified dryer lint, and birch plywood, Schneller’s speakers have become an integral part of Bird’s stage show: Hooked up to a custom-built 1930s-style tube amplifier, they transform the violinist’s soft, ethereal notes into muscular concert-hall fillers. “With the hand-wiring inside, the horns are meant to be virtually immortal and infinitely serviceable,” says Schneller, who studied sculpture at the School of the Art Institute but found the market kinder to the luthier than to the artist. “And,” he adds slyly, “the sound is mind-blowing.”
Last year, when New York’s Guggenheim Museum invited Bird to perform, he, in turn, asked Schneller to design a multiple-horn matrix to combat the sound-suck of the cavernous institution. The result was not just a concert but, with dozens of the curvaceous, lilylike beauties individually set to different frequencies, an audible sculpture garden.
Chicago’s MCA took notice and commissioned Schneller to develop the full-scale Sonic Arboretum for December. Bird will write a new composition based on the layout of the 72-plus hornlings, hornlets, lederhorns, and extralarge models that Schneller is crafting for the airy atrium; the musician will drop by the museum unannounced and test out his piece during the month, then perform it live at two ticketed events on December 21 and 22. “Imagine a piece composed for 72 voices or an orchestra of 72 instruments,” says Schneller. “That’s how unique this system will be.”
In writing and arranging amid Schneller’s handiwork, Bird, who will release a new album in the spring of 2012, hopes to evoke that familiar sound of wind rippling across his farmland. “The museum setting is ideal,” says Bird, who admits to feeling an occasional bout of performance fatigue, as well as some pressure to produce on a schedule in keeping with listeners’ attention spans. “You can take it at your own pace.”
GO: Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller’s Sonic Arboretum runs Dec. 6–31 at the MCA, with ticketed performances on Dec. 21 and 22; for info, mcachicago.org.
Photograph: Saverio Truglia; Set Styling: Angela Finney; Retouching: Tim Blokel; Makeup: Cindy Shute; Production Assistant: Sarah Linder