Billed as Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller’s Sonic Arboretum, it was hard to know what to expect from the second event in the Guggenheim’s Dark Sounds Series, the performance accompaniment to their current photography exhibit Haunted. In fact, Bird himself likely did not know what to expect, as he likely left Newport to go back to Chicago for the completion of the unique audio speakers created by Schneller. The giant horns, large “hornlings” and smaller “hornlets” (don’t call them little big horns) were completed just in time for their trip Thursday morning to NYC. Set up around the bottom of the Guggenheim, the horns created four distinct “garden” areas. So the sound check, at which David Byrne supposedly attended, also served as the test run of all the handmade, polished and finished equipment. Plus, the multi-tiered, atypical “performance space”, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (another Chicago area artist in a different sense), had vastly different acoustics from traditional venues.
Attendees could arrive a couple hours beforehand to circle around the rotunda, check out the exhibit and find a space to take in the show. The fluid nature of the unique speakers, which would channel the music dynamically around the rotunda, was meant to be experienced from varying auditory vantages. Yet around ten, people on all levels stood transfixed gazing towards the stage where Bird was making his entrance. He took the time to absorb, appreciate and acknowledge the remarkable spectacle around him.
Bird’s set comprised mostly of instrumentals, including a cover of a Konono No. 1 song, and a few vocals, like a newer song which had the lyric “The moon plays the ocean like a violin”. He played, plucked and transformed his violin with gravity and also mixed in some guitar and glockenspiel. Wandering up and down the museum space, I felt the sound proved exciting and incredible all around.
With just a one song encore, Bird had a few false starts as he began sampling and looping his percussive sounds. Yet Bird persisted and soon started singing over a bit of melancholic violin, exuding a Jóhann Jóhannsson vibe that I can’t quite place. But, soon, the music transformed into something with a traditional roots feel. The audience was clapping along at one point while Bird whistled, bowed his violin and sang, “I’m going home”. The audience then applauded resoundingly as Bird waved, then hopped a barrier and exited.