Andrew Bird takes over the Museum of Contemporary Art this month
12/14/2011 10:00 PM
Few musicians in the world can match Chicago-based troubadour Andrew Bird’s skill set.
Violinist. Guitarist. Whistler. Glockenspieler. It’s a toolbox of odds and ends that, when combined, turn his records into lush soundscapes.
As charming as his albums are, seeing Bird perform live is an entirely different experience. That’s partly because of his incredible proficiency with each of his instruments, particularly his haunting, Theremin-esque whistle and Northwestern University Conservatory-honed violin.
But it’s the tools he uses onstage that make his performances unique — most notably the oversized horns he uses as his primary amplifiers, looking like something pulled out of Thomas Edison’s lab, that loom in the background as Bird performs.
This month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, though, they’re emerging from the background and becoming the star of the show at an exhibit called “Sonic Arboretum.” On display are 76 of the horns, designed by Ian Schneller and his Humboldt Park-based Specimen Products.
Arranged all around the museum’s main lobby, they vary in size from roughly 3-foot-tall hornlets to 9-foot-tall XL horns. Two double-headed Janus horns spin constantly, one of which has a six-foot wingspan.
Even though Bird’s not standing next to them on a day-to-day basis, his music is still in this Arboretum. In fact, he recorded a custom piece for the system, a sweeping, ethereal suite of new songs divided not just into stereo, but 24 separate audio channels.
“Technically, it’s very daunting — people don’t think this way,” said Schneller. “The entire world thinks in stereo pairs. You really have to fight your way out of this box.”
The idea, he said, is to create a sound that shifts as you move around the exhibit and indeed, even the rest of the museum.
“When audiences are in there, everyone will get a different vantage point,” Schneller said. “We think about them being arranged as sections of an orchestra — if an orchestra was broken up into different rooms.”
The horns are set up roughly in a T formation in the museum’s main atrium, beginning at the building’s front window and extending down its main hallway. Lean in close to any one horn and you might not be able to hear much sound, but from 5 feet back, the full experience sweeps over you.
All the pieces of Bird’s repertoire are there — the layers of violin, the whistle, the guitar — save for the lyrics.
Those will come, though, in two sold-out performances on Dec. 21 and 22, where Bird will use the Sonic Arboretum as a PA. There, he’ll add his eccentric, random thought association lyrics to the horns, as he performs material from his popular albums.
The entire event is a follow-up to the Sonic Arboretum’s debut at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in August 2010. There, Bird played a one-night-only show to a packed house in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum’s huge atrium, but Schneller’s horns didn’t get a chance to shine on their own.
Schneller says that since he first started working with Bird a decade ago, he hasn’t let any other professional musicians use his horns.
“It’s a unique symbiosis,” Schneller said. “It’s hard for me to imagine anyone else using them the way he does.”
However, he does sell them for private use. And for those who walk away in love, you can take home a pair from the museum’s gift shop.