December 7, 2011

American Songwriter

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Building Andrew Bird A Sound Garden
By Davis Inman

If you’ve ever been to an Andrew Bird show, you’ve probably noticed there’s something a little different happening onstage. Not just with Bird himself, who stands in a circle of instruments and creates sound loops meant to resemble the wind in his Western Illinois soybean fields. Transfixed by Bird’s world of sound, you might also find yourself asking: what are those giant horns up there?

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum

The answer, as it turns out, lies in an inventor and luthier named Ian Schneller in Chicago.

Schneller started out as a sculptor, studying fine art at Chicago’s Art Institute. Afterwards, he opened up Specimen Products, which is now celebrating its 25th year, and began building and repairing musical instruments. He got his first idea for a speaker that is reminiscent of an old gramophone horn about fifteen years ago. He describes the horn as a “byproduct” of his interest in sculpture and the discipline of luthiery.

This December, Schneller and his team will install 96 horns along with tube amplifiers at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Bird will compose music just for the space and two special concerts will be held on December 21 and 22.

Schneller says this unusual amplification system will serve as a “compositional tool” for Bird. “What I’m trying to create is a gigantic 48 channel playback system so he can compose into space the same way an orchestra composer would compose for a viola section or a timpani section,” says Schneller.

Schneller is master builder, though he admits he’s been called a crank and conspiracy theorist by some in the mainstream musical products industry for his contrarian views on luthiery and electronics. But most of his designs recall a simplicity from earlier eras.

He says the tube amps that power his horn shapes are an equal player in the MCA installation. Based on technology from the 1930s, the amps have eight watts per channel and marry traditional tube design with high-end digital technology. (One of Specimen’s tube amps can be yours for only $2,450.)

As for the horns, Schneller says they are ideal for amplifying hard-to-amplify instruments like Bird’s violin. “Their transient response is startling. They give you back what you put into them very, very quickly,” he says.

Visitors to the MCA this month will encounter 72 horns on the floor, including two that are eight feet high and one six-foot-wingspan, “Spinning Janus” horn, akin to a Leslie speaker, which Schneller says will be placed right by the entrance.

In August 2010, Bird and Schneller created a similar Sonic Arboretum at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Recalling Bird’s live performances with the horns at those shows, Schneller says, “It’s like a circus of inanimacy being brought to life.

My horns get to enjoy membership in that pantheon on inanimacy and also themselves become animated.”