Sonic Event, Andrew Bird at the MCA | Live review
If you’ve been to the Museum of Contemporary Art this month, you’ve probably noticed that the entire entryway and main hall has been turned into an audiophile’s paradise—a sonic garden of 76 boutique horn speakers made by Ian Schneller, proprietor of Chicago’s Specimen Products. The amplified speakers are visually stunning, and are made with recycled materials (including shellac reinforced with dryer lint.) They come in a variety of shapes and colors, and of course, sound lovely. Interconnected with a delicate nest of exposed speaker wire, vacuum tubes and custom computer controllers, they power Chicago musician Andrew Bird’s month-long show “Sonic Arboretum.” It’s a site-specific installation where hours of prerecorded loops and samples play in an unintrusive and inviting way, leading you through the white-walled space with pleasant whispers of sound.
But Bird’s two sold-out performances (billed as "Sonic Events") at the MCA on Wednesday and Thursday night were a chance to put this non-traditional amplification system to a more traditional use. As Bird explained from the stage on Thursday, this was an Andrew Bird show, not a museum piece. A trio of engineers managed a 48 channel mixer from the balcony capable of sending sound to the forest of amps in every possible configuration, and Bird took the stage with his violin and ran through a mix of back catalogue material and songs he’s been working on during his month-long residency at the Museum.
As the show began with a delicate pizzicato violin loop, it seemed possible that an enormous amount of work had been done on the installation to very little effect. But when Bird moved to one of his microphones and whistled a melody, the premise of the speaker garden became clear: the whistling could be heard from the stage but was also panned to specific speakers throughout the hall. The audience reacted naturally to the location of the sound, turning to the source as the source continuously changed, walking around to try to figure out how it all worked.
As the compositions grew more complex, the effect became more pronounced. When a particularly loud bowed violin loop clearly came from a specific speaker (one of two that were over 8 feet tall) even Bird glanced in its direction, as if he were looking at a fellow bandmate. At times it felt like standing in the middle of a robotic orchestra, and the steampunk aesthetic of the speakers (which look somewhat like old Victrolas) was a nice contrast to all the high technology involved. At one point Bird paused between songs and was understandably impressed: “I wasn’t sure if it was gonna work in such a live space. But it works!”
An installation like this obviously can’t work in a traditional venue (museum-goers generally know how to observe roped off areas and control their beer spillage), but it makes possible a number of unexpected creative interactions with the audience. One huge two-horned speaker was attached to a motor and spun on its axis; if you stood near it, its sound would come at you in bursts like screams from a carousel, making a rhythmic counterpoint to the song that only happened in that specific location. The setup turned the art of finding a room’s sonic “sweet spot” into a childlike game that had no solution, only varying possibilities.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the music world these days over how to add value to performances when prerecorded music has been stripped of value by downloads and streaming. Schneller and Bird have offered a nice solution to the problem by building a sculpture of sound that could never be captured with MP3s and earbuds. For once the old adage was really true: you really had to be there.
The Sonic Arboretum is on display at the MCA through the end of the month and is well worth a visit (December 27th is your best bet - MCA admission is free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents.)