“Sonic Arboretum” proves rapt and hypnotic at MCA

Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Musician Andrew Bird and artist Ian Schneller teamed up to create “Sonic Arboretum,” presented Wednesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Shane Welch

In this season of numberless Nutcrackers, Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” is the sonic arboretum of choice for thousands.

Musical flowers of a different sort are currently on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and on Wednesday night violinist and composer Andrew Bird offered a beguiling concert in their midst.

Bird, a Chicago native and major figure on the indie pop music scene, is one half of the MCA exhibit titled Sonic Arboretum, which opened Dec. 6 for a short run at the museum and closes Dec. 31. The other half is another Chicagoan, Ian Schneller, a sculptor and lute-maker whose elegant, old-fashioned, horn-shaped audio speakers Bird has been using for the past several years. They have filled the museum’s atrium with a garden composed of 75 of Schneller’s speakers drenched in a backdrop of Bird’s music for resonant, soulful violin and guitar heard on a continuous, amplified loop.

Bird, who studied violin at Northwestern University, created the music specifically for the installation, and at Wednesday’s concert, he played a 90-minute set of new and older pieces for a sold-out crowd. (Thursday night’s repeat is also sold out.)

Sonic Arboretum, like Bird’s music, is a fascinating combination of old and new. Schneller’s speakers are a cross between a morning glory and the large, metal horn used to amplify the sound on turn-of-the-20th century record players. Their slightly rough, gleaming surfaces resemble very thin, painted wood veneer, but are actually a combination of compressed recycled newsprint and dryer lint.

Between three and nine feet high, the speakers are arranged like plants in a formal garden. Meticulously spaced in straight rows, they stand tall on thick stalks, their flaring tops — painted in rich reds, golds or blues — raised as if to catch the sun. Schneller uses crystal radio tubes in his speakers, but the floor is covered with the kind of cables we use to connect our DVD players, TVs, radios and all other manner of modern sound-makers.

Bird’s music sounded deceptively simple, enveloping the crowd with waves of richly amplified, tuneful sound. He has a gift for haunting melody, and he sang in a warm, unaffected folk style, did some virtuoso whistling, strummed a guitar and often plucked at his violin as if it were a high-end ukulele.

But Bird’s violin tone was deep and full of expressive color. It frequently floated in long, melancholy lines above an electronic track of perky, syncopated motifs like a lonely soul pulling away from a crowd’s unbearably cheerful din.

Even without Bird’s live presence, his music for Sonic Arboretum is both soothingly hypnotic and invigorating. This is an inspired MCA exhibit, a worthy counterpart to the season’s waltzing flowers.

Posted in Performances

One Response to ““Sonic Arboretum” proves rapt and hypnotic at MCA”

  1. Posted Dec 30, 2011 at 8:59 am by diana Wettermann

    Will there be a recording available for purchase of Sonic Arboretum?

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