Andrew Bird's 'Sonic Arboretum'

21 December 2011 - Chicago

by Michael Ritchie

13 January 2012

Never have I felt the vibrations of a violin encompass a room or nor have I been in the middle of a three-dimensional field of sound that arrived at your ears from all directions.

Andrew Bird's "Sonic Arboretum"

21 Dec 2011: MCA — Chicago

The only item that looked like it didn’t belong in the MCA this late December Thursday was the small black stage set up on the museums main floor. After all, it blocked the main entrance atop the “rocky-like” climb of stairs one usually takes to enter the building. A kind of little step-brother to Chicago’s grand Art Institute, tucked off the top of Michigan Avenue in the Magnificent Mile neighborhood of Chicago, the MCA is the more conceptual and smaller of the downtown museums. But other than this stage, the MCA was filled with a multiplied group of the similar crowds I’ve noticed with past trips, although never for a concert. Hipsters and professor types alike, but most had a somewhat artsy look to them, as if they had been through at least one painting class in their years. It wasn’t a normal Andrew Bird crowd by any means though. Because behind the front rows of college art girls, sculptors, audiophiles and sound engineers gathered, all interested to stand within this Sonic Arboretum and hear it come to life.

This was the Arboretum’s second city after the initial success of the installation at the Guggenheim in New York. And it’s interesting that it didn’t start here in Chicago since both Bird and Ian Schneller, craftsman of all 75 of the Specimen Product speakers now housed in the MCA, are from the Chicago area. But after hearing Bird speak during his set, you realized that this was still a very new idea and growing itself. New York just happened to be where it began and neither had been sure where it would go to next.

Now I did start this by saying the stage (and a few extra lights) was the only object out of place compared to a normal day at the MCA. But the stage was positioned right where it needed to be. Placed between two “fields” of about 20 Specimen speakers varying in heights between 12 inches to 4 feet, and flanked by a pair of mammoth orange horns that faced back toward the stage. Each of the speakers held a similar shape that consisted of a square wooden base with an elongated, gramophone-like horn rising from the top. But other than the shape, no pair looked the same. Bases were stained and polished individually, and the horns, which are compressed material made of newspaper and dryer-lint, were painted and glossed in a variety of rich tones, giving them a beauty easily appreciated without the presence of the multi-talented Bird. From Bird’s view, he looked down the main gallery hallway over a larger field of similar speakers running down the center. Another giant, this one with a dual-horn that spun above the room, lay at the end of the hallway. And intertwined in each field, connecting it all, were countless lengths of high-end cable and beautifully built Specimen tube amplifiers used to power it all.

Most of Bird’s compositions sneak up on the listener. They are composed in an organic fashion, building upon themselves until each song is surrounded in music. Simple guitar strums and whistles become layered soundscapes that would float and circle around the room. Between Bird’s sonic offerings and the arboretum of speakers around the MCA, was a 48-channel mixing board carefully set up and tuned to control the forest of speakers below. It also allowed Bird, and his sound engineer to a larger degree, complete control of when and where different parts of the performance would be projected. The simple act of closing your eyes to focus on the sound let you hear the music circle around you from room to room as new sounds started faint and soon would draw closer with increased volume and change of position. It was a complete sonic experience that the audience also felt as certain notes shook and hummed through the air. It was an unbelievably crisp and pure sound that I’ve never heard, or felt, through any other sound system.

Bird played to the crowd for a little over an hour with a set mixed of previously released material as well as pieces composed on-site during the exhibition’s installation. Bird had even stopped in some mornings after the arboretum was complete to play to that day’s gallery attendees, perched above them in a lofted balcony as they freely milled about. It was during these morning sessions that some of these new, exhibition-specific pieces were composed which added to the exclusive feel to their sounds.

I have to say, this was a truly amazing experience. Never have I felt the vibrations of a violin encompass a room or nor have I been in the middle of a three-dimensional field of sound that arrived at your ears from all directions. I would never expect anything less from the MCA, but this exposition and the two nights of live performances were flawlessly executed. I imagine that this will exist again soon, in a new city, in a new space, with new songs and compositions to fit within those confines, and I urge you to go experience it. Audio components have never looked so beautiful or come alive with such vibrancy than with Bird at the helm. Ian Schneller and Andrew Bird are complete artists and the combination of their offerings is a sound (and sight) not to be missed. I hope this arboretum can continue to grow, flourish and be heard in installations across the globe.

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