Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Specimen Products: Sound, Sculpture and Simplicity

Ian Schneller, the creative mind behind Chicago's Specimen Products has been working in the city for more than two decades- building innovative audio products and developing unique gallery installations across the United States. One of Schneller's most notable products (along with custom instruments, hand-built tube amplifiers and hi-fi stereo components) are his "horn speakers". These are handmade, gramophone-like speakers, partly high-end audio components and partly works of visual art.

A Conversation with Ian Schneller (MFA 1986) from SAIC on Vimeo.

As noted in the video, Schneller's west-side workshop also houses two of his other ventures, a full-fledged instrument repair shop and a new-age vocational school that teaches the art of instrument and equipment building and repair on the weekends and in the summer.

I first encountered Schneller's work through another Chicago native, Andrew Bird. I saw Bird perform live in 2010 and was immediately intrigued by the centerpiece of his stage, a white and bright red spinning horn speaker (appears at 0:43 in the above video). I scoured the internet to find who was behind this crazy spectacle of a speaker. I inevitably found the Specimen Products webpage and became enamored with all of their quirky, beautiful products. At some point in the late 90s, Bird stumbled across Schneller's shop and saw an early version of his horn speakers. Thereafter, the two began working closely together on various ideas and projects that would develop into innovative gallery installations dubbed "sonic arboretums".

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum from MCA Chicago on Vimeo.

Schneller's background in sculpture lends him a knack for combining visual and structural components with a natural take on sonics that leaves us with these incredible "sonic arboretums". These installations have been featured in notable galleries such as the Guggenheim in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago, and most recently the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. Each arboretum is custom made for the gallery space and acoustically designed to provide viewers/listeners with lush sonic environments that change as you move through the space. I find this idea to be wholly fascinating and innovative on its own, and paired with improvised performances from Andrew Bird, the arboretums reach another level of cool.

Schneller's work is deeply rooted in a belief in simplicity and minimalism. From the Specimen Products website:
“After having to correct the numerous shortcomings of my customers’ equipment and make sense of the growing number of needlessly elaborate designs on the market, I became convinced that a minimalistic approach with uncompromised structural fortitude is a much-needed credo. I directly applied this learning to my own fifty-watt tube amplifier model, the prototype of which is used as my shop’s service amp, running eight hours a day, 6 days a week. This amp became my working template, my sonic control group, and a reference for new variation.”
This quote relates to the Robert Weisberg reading from Creativity: Beyond the myth of genius in which he notes the theory that creative thinking is a form of problem-solving. Schneller, working in equipment repair found a problem in complicated circuit design and internalized a mindset of simplicity that led to organic audio products like the horn speaker that rely on natural acoustic properties and effects as opposed to complex electronic circuitry. I had the pleasure to meet Schneller in person three years ago when I was in Chicago touring Loyola. I recall him priding himself on the naturally amplifying nature of his horn speakers which can fill a room with sound running on as little as five watts of power. This is compared to modern mass-produced stereo components where high-wattage has become a marketing factor, with some components surpassing 1,000 watts.

I find Schneller's work to be deeply creative and brilliant in its quirkiness. I will leave you with another video and a couple more pictures of his awesome work.

A sculpture designed to manipulate sound as it passes through.

A device that hits play on up to ten iPods at a time, at the exact same moment.

Show Room, Garfield Conservatory, Chicago

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