Three Beats: Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller transplant Sonic Arboretum | Three Beats | Chicago Reader

Three Beats: Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller transplant Sonic Arboretum 

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SOUND ART | Bill Meyer

When Ian Schneller started showing his sculptures in galleries in the 80s, he felt like his representations of toys and other real-world objects were out of step with the art world, which he saw as infatuated with idea-driven postmodernism. Since he was also a musician, he applied his hands-on skills instead to instrument making, first crafting a mammoth bass drum for his old band Shrimp Boat and then building guitars like the hollow aluminum model made infamous by Tar's John Mohr. Eventually Schneller's shop, Specimen Products, branched out to servicing and designing amplifiers. Twelve years ago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird stopped by to have his guitar repaired and fell for the look and sound of Specimen's Victrola-like horn speakers; since then he's incorporated several into his stage setup.

Last year the two men debuted an installation called Sonic Arboretum at New York's Guggenheim Museum, and this month they're bringing it to the Museum of Contemporary Art. "The pendulum," says Schneller, "has swung back into the art realm." The Arboretum is a veritable forest of speakers, including eight-foot behemoths, 19-inch Hornlets, and a rotating, two-faced Janus speaker. "It has a wingspan of six feet and will be in front of the revolving doors in the atrium," says Schneller. He's also built a dozen 90-pound Octoblock tube amps to power the exhibit.

It's easy to respond to Schneller's hardware purely on a visual level, but its design is rooted in his assertion that sound technology peaked in 1940. The speakers are intended to shape sound as well as project it; given the museum's lively acoustics, the music Bird has composed for the exhibit should sound quite different depending on where you stand. The MCA will host Sonic Arboretum from 12/6 through 12/31, and Bird will play two concerts using the grove of speakers as his PA on 12/21 and 12/22.

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