November 24, 2011

The Guardian U.K.

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Guardian UK feature in Music Blog about Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago

Guardian UK Music Blog feature on Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago

By Laura Barton

Andrew Bird’s sonic arboretum reminds me of the natural music we are losing

The music of the fields and the woodlands, the lapwings and bunting, is giving way to the sounds of the city, the new housing estates, the motorways
Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago

Loops ‘that fit with the landscape’ … Andrew Bird.

In Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art this December, there will sprout up a peculiar kind of forest: 50 horned speakers, each standing between 19 and 26in high across the atrium, their bells upturned like blackbird mouths. This “sonic arboretum” is a project dreamed up by the musician Andrew Bird and the sculptor and instrument-maker Ian Schneller, the product of a long friendship and a shared fascination with sound.

It is Schneller who makes the speakers, or “hornlets and hornlings”, as he calls them, using a combination of recycled newsprint, dryer lint and baking soda, impregnated with shellac. They are wonderful beasts: most handsomely shaped and exquisitely burnished.

Bird provides the sound. He will record compositions on-site at the museum, then send different musical information to different groups of horns through multiple loops. Subsequent changes occur off-site, layering and looping and transmitting the resulting sounds to the museum by computer.

This is not the first time Bird, Schneller and the hornlings have stepped out together. In late summer 2010, they were unveiled at the Guggenheim in New York. Bird explained to PBS how he was inspired by time spent at the farm he owns in Illinois. This is where he writes music, crafting loops that “fit with the landscape, with a field of soybeans in the wind, the way the wind will blow through and make this pattern. What we can do with these hornlets is create that movement of wind.”

It also encouraged him to think of how sound falls in the landscape, of the way it is echoed and absorbed in a way that is tangibly different to a concert hall or gig venue. “Usually you think of acoustics in closed spaces because sound bounces off of things,” Bird said. “But if you’re in Zion National Park or the Sandstone Cliffs, you create this acoustical space with different textures of the plants in our area, and that’s what we’re trying to appropriate.”

Music in the landscape is something I think about often: not just the seasonal acoustic spaces of the summer festivals, nor only the landscape references that crop up in song, the sycamore of the Mamas and the Papas’ Dream a Little Dream of Me, say, or Van Morrison’s Redwood Tree, which “smells like rain, maybe even thunder”, but the music the land itself produces, the wind making patterns in the soybean fields, the rain falling heavy on broad green leaves, the sudden stir of a branch as a bird takes flight.

One of my favourite places in Britain is a real arboretum: Westonbirt, in Gloucestershire. Though it has no hornlets or hornlings, it owns its own sonic charms. I first visited there in late autumn, when the light faded early, and the rain pattered on the soft earth of the pathways, on the smooth, dark rhododendron bushes. And there was music, too, in the scent of wet bark and damp soil, in the caramel smell of the katsura, and the deep, mulchy fragrance of the fallen leaves; a song in the sudden flames of colour on the branches; in the dark and the shadows and the birdsong, clinging to the light.

It reminded me of Vaughan Williams’s first composition, a musical interpretation of a poem by William Barnes, Linden Lea, which pined for the woodland of his Dorset home: “By the oak trees’ mossy moot,/ The shining grass blades, timber-shaded,/ Now do quiver underfoot;/ And birds do whistle overhead,/ And water’s bubbling in its bed,/ And there for me the apple tree/ Do lean down low in Linden Lea.”

It made me think how the sounds of our landscape are changing. The music of the fields and the woodlands giving way to the sounds of the city, and the new housing estates, and the motorways; of how the streetlights make their own kind of song, and the high-speed trains dance faster than their steam-powered cousins. And as we gain these new sounds, I wonder about the patterns, the rhythms we are losing, the songs of the lapwing and the wagtail, the bunting and the barley field. “Translating mistakes, and the trees and the stake,” as Bird once sang. “And the trees for the woods and the sound of the trash/ For the sound of the blowing leaves along the Southfield Freeway.”