At most concerts, the performer is literally the center of attention. Musician Andrew Bird would prefer if his fans were paying more attention to his speakers.
A successful multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Bird recently joined instrument and acoustic engineer Ian Schneller to create a novel live music experience, something they’re calling the Sonic Arboretum, which premiered as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s Dark Sounds series last month.
Both based in Chicago, Bird has been using Schneller’s handmade, vintage-looking victrola-shaped speakers to enhance his recordings and live performances since 2004. But for the Sonic Arboretum, Bird and Schneller are trying something totally new in scale.
Schneller has created nearly 50 ‘hornlets’ and ‘hornlings’, amplifiers made of recycled newspaper and dryer lint (a surprisingly bountiful and sustainable resource, says Schneller) that range in height from 19 to 26 inches. For Sonic Arboretum, the many hornlings and hornlets are spaced out across the stage, creating an almost literal field of potential sound.
“Usually you think of acoustics in closed spaces because sound bounces off of things. But if you’re in Zion National Park or the Sandstone Cliffs, you create this acoustical space with different textures of the plants in our area….And that’s what we’re trying to appropriate in this,” says Bird (hence the botanical metaphor).
Bird uses his speakers almost like microphones. Using a loop peddle, he’ll record and play back musical lines, controlling which horns amplify the sounds. Using what Schneller described as Bird’s “kit-bag of tools,” the musician becomes a one-man orchestra.
Schneller and Bird hope to expand the arboretum to 96 hornlings and hornlets, and they are talking to museums about other possibilities. One idea is to use the set-up as the setting for a longer sound installation, where Bird could “come in the morning and experiment for two hours, and people can watch, and then I go home, and it plays for the rest of the day, and people walk through.”
“I’m trying to downplay the performance and take my persona out of it as much as I can,” says Bird.
In other words: he’s hoping that he can get people to see the (sonic) forest for the trees.
Art Beat caught up with Bird and Schneller at the Guggenheim Museum, where they debuted their “Sonic Arboretum” on August 5: