Sonic Arboretum at the MCA – Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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The Sonic Arboretum is an artistic collaboration of the sculptor/inventor Ian Schneller and the composer/violinist Andrew Bird.  It is a sculpture and sound installation consisting of a “forest” of botanically inspired sculptural Specimen horn speakers powered by Specimen tube amplifiers. The speakers are arrayed to create a compositional “sculpture garden” for Bird who creates new site-specific music that plays continuously as visitors meander and follow the music’s lead through the Sonic Arboretum.

  • Twenty-four Liederhorns (a new larger size of the Hornlet & Hornling shape)

  • Twenty-four Hornlings

  • Twenty-four Hornlets

  • One Octoblock Tube Amplifier

  • Eight Stereo Hi-Fi Tube Amplifiers

  • Two XL Horn Speakers

  • One Janus Double Spinning Horn Speaker

  • One XL Janus Double Spinning Horn Speaker

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago December 2011
Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago December 2011
Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller Sonic Arboretum MCA Chicago December 2011

The installation at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago was part of the MCA Stage’s 2011-12 season and was on exhibit December 6 – 31 with two special Sonic Events on Wednesday, December 21 and Thursday, December 22 where Bird performed using the Sonic Arboretum as the P.A.

For the MCA exhibit, the Sonic Arboretum included 76 horn speakers: 24 Hornlets, 24 Hornlings, 24 Liederhorns, one Janus Spinning Double Horn Speaker, 2 XL Horn Speakers, and a new XL Janus Spinning Double Horn Speaker.

The horn speakers, handmade using compressed recycled newsprint and dryer lint, are powered by custom tube amps that are also entirely handmade by Specimen Products. One of these amps, the Octoblock made its debut at the MCA.

Video of the December 21st evening performance at the MCA Chicago


During the first week of the installation a mini recording studio was setup on the museum’s third floor balcony. From there, Bird created new musical impressions specifically for the atrium space, layering violin, guitar and vocal loops, captured live, and sent shifting between clusters of speakers in the installation. After recording nearly 2-1/2 hours of music, Bird and his engineer, Neil Strauch, orchestrated the movement of sound throughout the Arboretum assigning specific tracks to specific horns and shifting those tracks around the Arboretum to create spatial and aural phenomena. These compositions played back through the Sonic Arboretum continuously throughout the day.

The Sonic Arboretum debuted at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in August 2010 in the form of a one-night-only performance of Andrew Bird’s music, realized via 53 sonic sculptures of Ian Schneller. Performing for a sold out crowd, Bird directed different horn groupings via multiple loops played live on violin, guitar, and glockenspiel creating an audiovisual landscape.

Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, 2011
Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago, 2011