Sound: Bill Fontana and Acoustical Visions

Take a walk through nature and you can easily hear the musical noises of birds chirping or rustling trees. Many people have found their surroundings to be sources of harmonic noises, but Bill Fontana focuses on specific interactions within urban architecture in his sound art. For Fontana,

“the world at any given moment is a potential musical system.” (see below video)

Born in 1947 in Cleveland Ohio, Fontana is now an internationally known artist and composer of experimental sound sculptures.

Since his first sound sculpture in 1976, Fontana has elicited a connection between his audience and their urban environment by drawing out the living sounds of bridges, machinery, transportation, and structures in his acoustical visions. Wikipedia defines sounds sculptures to be art forms, commonly sculptures, that produce sounds, OR the reverse so that sound creates a sculpture. In a sense, the audio and visual elements of his explorations create each other, sound making an image and an image making sound. Sound is elevated to give audiences a new perspective of the visual environment in which the sculpture exists. Rudolf Frieling, the Media Arts Curator at SFMOMA since 2006, described these acoustical visions best, as…

“an audiovisual field recording, enhanced and abstracted in real time or in post-production [in which s]ound and visuals support each other[ and] no leading or supporting role can be identified in this interaction.”

In many of Fontana’s pieces he finds living sounds through everyday architecture or found spaces, inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s concept of ready-made objects. Of paradoxical nature, the installation Distant Trains reconstructs a historic train terminal in Berlin destroyed in the during World War II by projecting live sounds from another train station in the space. The space seems to create the sound just as the sounds creates a “new” space.

Image compilation from Fontana’s installation of Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge

His piece Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge channels the energy of cars and surrounding fog horn and boat sounds recorded from strategically placed sensors. Recorded sounds are heard from inaccessible vantage points and the live camera view is watched from a remote location to experience a situation in entirely new context with unpredictable audio and visual.

Watch Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge here:

My favorite art piece of Fontana’s is his 2006 piece Harmonic Bridge, a beautiful piece containing sounds from the inner workings of the Millennium Bridge in London. The bridge is alive through vibrations that result from the bridge’s dynamic movements caused by footsteps, wind, and cars. If I had been listening in person, I think I could have stayed in the Tate Modern gallery, where the living acoustic sculpture was exhibited, for a while. The sound was slightly recognizable with distinct moments sounding very much like a stringed instrument. The Tate Modern even describes the bridge as a vast stringed instrument as you listen throughout the space. Most importantly, the sculpture is captivating because the sounds come from a place humans are incapable of reaching without technology like the accelerators Fontana uses. Alan Riding of the NY Times puts the the piece into words perfectly:

“rising and falling, always different, at once strange and familiar, mysterious and evocative, hypnotic and sensual.”

As we start discussing contemporary sound artists, the connection to the forerunners in sound art is clear. Fontana strays from synchronization of his audio and visual elements just as Edgard Varese created infinite harmonic possibilities across unpredictable planes. To Fantana,

“the act of listening is a way of making music”,

reflecting the significance of silence and listening to our surroundings in John Cage’s work. I think that if after experiencing one of Fontana’s sound sculptures we leave with different perceptions of a certain urban space, then Fontana would be satisfied. Because ultimately, sound art is about creating a new experience that is only achievable with innovative technology and original methods of composing—whether Luigi Russolo’s noise machines, Varese’s organized sound, or Cage’s chance compositions. For Fontana, it happens to be his experimental placement of recording devices, the displacement of sound, and his fascination with “the found object” that supplies this new experience.

Sound: Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noise

Music has never been something I believed I had a keen ear towards. I enjoy music and played piano but never understood the technicality of it and the study of musical sounds. However, I have always enjoyed putting away the earbuds and sitting and listening to daily sounds around me. Typically I would take walks at lunch during work or sit on the bus in silence or open my bedroom window and hear the sounds from outside. But none of this was ever silence to me, so I resonated with Luigi Russolo’s writing about how daily noises can be more pleasing to the ear than traditionally accepted music.

Russolo’s manifesto opens up the expanse of sounds that we may not realize we interpret each day and prompts us to be active in discovering these noises that exist around us through machines, nature and people. Without a background in music, it is interesting to me that instrumental sounds which were established by people are called pure sounds. I would think that the sounds resulting from nature or from experiences in our life—whether in the city or rural areas—would be called pure. It is also worth noting that these noise sounds, when given words by Russolo in his six categories of noises, are comparative to literature onomatopoeias.

Russolo has a clear stance on the superiority of noise sounds but his piece “Awakening of a City” did not convince me so. As previously mentioned, I think some noises can be quite pleasing to listen to, but as Russolo mentioned, “the variety of noises is infinite” so I believe there must be many unpleasing noises too. I actually listened to the “Awakening of a City” prior to reading The Art of Noise and I was able to pick up slight resemblances between the noise in his piece and the sounds of music I have listened to. As I was listening, I sketched out how I was visualizing this noise piece in my head, not with the intention of accuracy but to be able to see what I was hearing. After reading the manifesto, I think my visualization may have related to the speed and slowing down movements of the piece as well as the volume intensity. Overall, this type of noise sound is intriguing and seems to tell a story in the dramatic nature of its composition — a story that doesn’t necessarily imitate nature or machinery but tries to compose them together to create something new that you may not hear or notice in everyday life.