Credit: Shane Welch

SOUND ART | Bill Meyer

When Ian Schneller started showing his sculptures in galleries in the 80s, he felt like his representations of toys and other real-world objects were out of step with the art world, which he saw as infatuated with idea-driven postmodernism. Since he was also a musician, he applied his hands-on skills instead to instrument making, first crafting a mammoth bass drum for his old band Shrimp Boat and then building guitars like the hollow aluminum model made infamous by Tar’s John Mohr. Eventually Schneller’s shop, Specimen Products, branched out to servicing and designing amplifiers. Twelve years ago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird stopped by to have his guitar repaired and fell for the look and sound of Specimen’s Victrola-like horn speakers; since then he’s incorporated several into his stage setup.

Last year the two men debuted an installation called Sonic Arboretum at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and this month they’re bringing it to the Museum of Contemporary Art. “The pendulum,” says Schneller, “has swung back into the art realm.” The Arboretum is a veritable forest of speakers, including eight-foot behemoths, 19-inch Hornlets, and a rotating, two-faced Janus speaker. “It has a wingspan of six feet and will be in front of the revolving doors in the atrium,” says Schneller. He’s also built a dozen 90-pound Octoblock tube amps to power the exhibit.

It’s easy to respond to Schneller’s hardware purely on a visual level, but its design is rooted in his assertion that sound technology peaked in 1940. The speakers are intended to shape sound as well as project it; given the museum’s lively acoustics, the music Bird has composed for the exhibit should sound quite different depending on where you stand. The MCA will host Sonic Arboretum from 12/6 through 12/31, and Bird will play two concerts using the grove of speakers as his PA on 12/21 and 12/22.

CLASSICAL | Peter Margasak

George Lewis and Steve LehmanCredit: Michael Hoefner

For its February 5 concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art—the next in its ongoing residency there—the International Contemporary Ensemble will spotlight former Chicagoan George Lewis (now a professor of music at Columbia University in New York) in a program that explores the increasingly busy intersection of classical music and improvisation. Though he’s an author and scholar as well as a brilliant trombonist and daring improviser, these days Lewis is perhaps most notable as a boundary-pushing composer, and ICE will perform two of his pieces, including 2011’s Will to Adorn in its local premiere. The rest of the program consists of Chicago premieres by three dynamic composers and musicians who, like Lewis, erase the boundaries between classical and jazz: trumpeter Peter Evans flutist Nicole Mitchell, reedist Steve Lehman, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey.

Many fans of classical music, at least the kind who tend to stick to Symphony Center shows, see the nexus of composition and improvisation (at least outside of jazz) as uncharted territory, and they’re skeptical that any good could come of venturing into it. But even in Bach’s time such hybrid techniques were commonplace, and for more than half a century composers from John Cage to Mauricio Kagel to Bernhard Lang have used improvision and aleatoric methods (leaving elements to chance or the performer’s whim). Such work is still rarely performed in mainstream settings, though, and ICE continues to develop programs to demystify it for new listeners.

On Sat 12/3 at 3 PM, as part of a series it calls ICElab InFormation, the organization is inviting the public to have a seat on the MCA stage with Lewis and Lehman, who’ll discuss their work and field questions. They’ll display graphic scores from some of the pieces on February’s program and show video of rehearsals of those pieces. The event isn’t strictly speaking a concert, but Lehman’s Lenwood & Other Saints Who Roam the Earth (not part of February’s program) will get its Chicago debut with help from the ICE members who’ll be on hand.

Last spring I attended a previous installment of InFormation, and I found it illuminating and entertaining. Among the highlights was percussionist and composer Nathan Davis giving an informal preview of his piece Bells, which uses the audience members’ cell phones to contribute electronic tones. Saturday’s event is free, but seating is limited—you can make reservations online or by calling the MCA box office at 312-397-4010.

HIP-HOP | Tal Rosenberg

Between 1967 and 1975, a group of Swedish TV reporters investigating racial conflict in America amassed a trove of 16-millimeter footage on the U.S. black power movement—documentary treatments of urban black communities, interviews with the likes of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, newsreel-style clips of black power activists, and more. The film languished in a basement for decades, until documentarian Goran Hugo Olsson discovered it and compiled it into The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, blending archival material and present-day interviews with Davis, Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, and Huey P. Newton, among others. Another interviewee, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, helped score the film.

On Sat 12/3 at 1 PM, the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture hosts an event at the International House (1414 E. 59th) that includes a screening of the film, discussions with former Illinois Black Panthers as well as current youth activists and artists, and a hip-hop show featuring Rhymefest, BBU, Invincible, DJ RTC, and others. Everything is free and open to the public.