August 9, 2010

Art in America

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Birds and Beans
By: Kimberly Chou

For two years, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird and aritst Ian Schneller have been planning a “sonic arboretum” of different-sized horns.

“The horns kind of evolved from being more this Victrola aesthetic to more a plant-like shape, some sort of prairie flowers, kind of facing toward the sky,” said Bird, in an interview in advance of his performance at the Guggenheim Thursday night. “So I kind of like this idea of possibly modeling different environments through these horns. I’m interested in the acoustics of different environments: If you’re in Zion National Park and you’re surrounded by these canyon walls and these trees, what kind of sounds fill this space? Or if you’re in a field of soy beans, what does that sound like?”

Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum at the Guggenheim Museum NYC 2010Bird and Schneller debuted their sonic arboretum last night, projecting a live performance by Bird to a sold-out crowd at the Guggenheim. The show was part of the museum’s “Dark Sounds” performance series this summer, tied to the current exhibition, “Haunted.”

Bird switched between bowing his violin and plucking it like a ukulele, jumping on guitar and vibraphone as well. At times he threw in hand claps and crooned wordless sounds, over the loops of music he’d created seconds before. The performance was less song-driven, as Bird had said it would be, though with a few of his better known tunes. Instead, Bird took off on instrumental passages and segways.

“I like the idea of taking the emphasis off my persona and into a different way of listening,” Bird said. Populating the irregular floor of the Guggenheim with 53 horns, creating a forest with an almost Wonderland effect, certainly contributes to that.

Schneller and Bird met several years ago when the latter came in to the former’s shop to repair a damaged guitar. Schneller, who has a master’s degree in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had already built a few horns at the time and suggested Bird try one.

“Horns are specifically good for traditionally hard to amplify instruments,” Schneller said. Bird came back to the shop with his violin. “I had no idea whether he liked the looks of it, but saw that his first priority was sonic performance… He played [with a horn] for several hours, then started dragging it around on tour with him.”

From Schneller’s earlier models, the horns have evolved into giant “XL” horns and one, dubbed the “Janus horn,” that spins. Bird has performed with these horns as his traveling PA system everywhere from Chicago’s Millenium Park to inside churches.

Ideally, Schneller and Bird see their sonic arboretum with 96 horns total and installed in an art center. Bird describes a field of these horns in a “more confined” large gallery space, covering every inch of the floor. He would perform for an hour and a half or so, not unlike the Guggenheim performance, then let music stream from the loops and have people walk amongst the horns.

“The idea is a whole different medium really,” he said, “taking it off the stage and putting it in a kind of controlled space where people can wander amongst the horns as if they were a field, kind of bathe in the sound … It’s really like creating an ecosystem of sound.”