Q & A with Sonic Artist Bill Fontana: “Silent Echoes” at the Rubin Museum

06/15/2011 5:00 PM |

Before he ever recorded the ocean sounds of the Norman beaches and blasted them from the Arc de Triomphe, before he captured the humming of the Brooklyn Bridge and projected it in the plaza below the World Trade Center towers, before he used the rushing white noise of Niagara Falls to wrap around the façade of the Whitney Museum, Bill Fontana was a teenager growing up in Cleveland who thought he had a psychological issue because of the way he related to sound.

Fontana, who studied both philosophy and musical composition, has been making what he calls “sound sculptures” for nearly 40 years—his most well-known works have been celebrations of ambient sound in some of the noisiest, most unexpected public places throughout the United States and Europe. Fontana’s latest work, Silent Echoes, is no less unexpected—a pocket of immersive, sonic meditation recorded from four Kyoto temple bells, some more than a thousand years old. But here’s the twist: The sounds that Fontana captured occurred when the bells were not ringing. Fitting, then, that Silent Echoes, exhibiting now at the Rubin Museum of Art, is installed on one of the most cacophonous, anxious and densely populated strips of land on the planet.

Fontana used acoustic microphones and accelerometers (extremely sensitive measurement tools used by structural engineers to measure vibrations) to capture the non-ringing bells’ “rich tonality.” The idea, one influenced by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, is that, as Fontana puts it, “music is continuous and listening is intermittent.” Fontana hopes that people who experience the installation leave with a heightened consciousness of the musicality of their natural surroundings, despite the raucousness of urban living. It’s a sensibility, he says, that allows him to appreciate being alive in the present. Bill Fontana spoke to The L about the installation, and a number of other cosmic, revelatory things found in the mundane.

The L: So why did you decide to record these bells in particular? And how?

Fontana: I made a recording expedition to Japan in 2008, where, with the help of a really good friend of mine, in Kyoto we then visited about half a dozen different temples and set up these pretty elaborate recordings. We had placed these vibration sensors on the bells, also put an acoustic microphone inside the hollow cavity, the resonating cavity of the bell, and sort of measured and recorded the sounds the bells make when they’re not ringing, which turned out to be extraordinary. [...]
While I was making the sound recordings of the bells, I also had a high definition video camera simply gazing at the bells. So in the installation you see a pretty large projection of an image of one of these historic bells, which is in fact not ringing, in the normal sound of the word. What you hear is this very immersive sound, this very physical sound of the bell that is this sort of deep resonance of all the harmonics that the metal of the bell makes in reaction just to ambient sound. So the bell has actually become this big ear that is listening all the time. [...]
I recall Buddhist temples, in meditation you would strike a bell, and if you listen to it in a way where your focus was really good, you would really start to identify with the sound of the bell, and start to lose the separation of your own kind of consciousness with the bell. And I experienced a sensation that the bell doesn’t stop ringing, because as long as you don’t stop ringing, the bell doesn’t stop ringing. Or if you don’t stop listening, the bell doesn’t stop ringing, or something like that. But it’s actually to me a very intriguing physical factor that the bells were really ringing all the time, these particular bells being, some of them, over a thousand years old and actually ringing for all that time.

The L: That’s fascinating. What kinds of things, what kinds of hidden sounds, did you find in the recording of the dormant bells that you didn’t necessarily expect beforehand?

Fontana: You would hear the sounds of some distant ceremonies going on at some of the larger temples. You would hear these birds in them. One of the temple bells was next to this small river and you could recognize the sound of water through the bell. And just the richness of it, I suppose, was the most remarkable thing. That these bells had a very beautiful, rich tonality to them.

The L: And you’ve been making sound sculptures for over 40 years now. How has your definition of what a sound sculpture is changed over time?

Fontana: I started out with a couple of really strong premises in my work. I think one of them is that music is something that’s going on in the environment everywhere, in terms of musical patterns and musical processes. And I just decided to make a career out of exploring what that was and what that meant.

The L: You used to live in New York during your time at the New School and now you live in San Francisco. How does ambient urban sound affect you? As a sonic artist, you must be paying close attention to what most people would disregard as “noise” all the time.

Fontana: I’ve always sort of had my ear open for sounds that are interesting. I was in London last week, and I was staying in a hotel that was newly renovated. And it was a hotel that I had stayed in many times before, but they had installed new elevators. And I was in a room that was near the backside of the elevator shafts, and these elevators moved at a pretty high speed and I was just very intrigued by the sounds they made, that I could hear through the wall. Probably to most people they would be really irritating [laughs], but I found myself putting accelerometers on the walls to record.

The L: Yeah, I’m curious about the idea about being irritated. It seems like New Yorkers are especially skilled at shutting out everyday things, sounds, stimuli, that don’t help us get from point A to point B, especially things that could be pretty emotionally harrowing if we took a moment to meditate on them. How do you reconcile tuning into ambient sound and listening to it as music if that same sensitivity can also be completely overwhelming?

Fontana: Well, I think you have to understand that because of what I do, and fortunately what I spent all of my adult life doing, my brain is wired differently than some other person. What might be very interesting to me might be horrific for somebody else. But I tend to regard the act of listening as a way of making music, in the sense that you’re sort of perceiving patterns and relationships and you’re hearing and you’re organizing it in your mind. And it’s a very participatory process. I guess I start out with the basic assumption that there’s always going to be something interesting to hear, if I have the sort of sensitivity and patience to find it. [...]
So I’m really never bored, actually. Really, wherever I am, I’ve found the ability to be able to focus on something and find a way into it, and so I think it takes a certain effort to do that. […] I guess one of the purposes is in the art I’m doing is to create situations that maybe help people to awaken that sensibility in themselves.

The L: I’ve read in other interviews and essays that you’ve done that you’re intent on developing a natural ear, rather than promoting “natural” sounds. So is there a line for you, between natural and unnatural sounds? Or is that distinction immaterial?

Fontana: I think the distinction’s immaterial. I think that any sound we can hear is natural in the sense that it’s happening. And I think that it’s easy to make the distinction that the sounds are natural that happen in nature and have sounds that are man-made as natural—but we are part of nature, we are natural. We are part of that. So I don’t personally recognize that separation, and so I guess I find that the sounds that you find in a city, maybe nobody thought about the combinations of things that are put there—there are sometimes really crazy mixtures of sounds that you’ve been humming with in the environment. But all these sounds obey the laws of physics. And to me they’re natural in that sense.
Just imagine, a hypothetical question: Imagine you were a time traveler and imagine that you came from, let’s say, a thousand years in the future. And you’re a time traveler, and you come back to the 21st century and walk around New York City. Don’t you think you’d be fascinated by the way New York City sounded?

The L: Do you think of yourself as that person when you’re walking around and listening to sounds?

Fontana: Yes, yes I do. It’s a sensibility I’ve kind of consciously cultivated or developed in myself. […] I feel like every moment I’m alive has something to teach me. This moment’s never going to happen again. And who am I to say, “This is just boring and noisy and uninteresting.” And so I feel that every moment, because it’s never going to repeat itself, if this moment were alive—that’s just the way I think about things.

The L: How do you think developing this kind of involuntary attention, this sensibility as you put it, this kind of meditative experience, lends itself outside of the museum?

Fontana: If you look at the way people are today, walking around with headphones stuck in their ears walking down the street, I think people have a strong need for what you refer to as involuntary attention. Get some of recharge from their brain, that kind of stimuli. And for me it’s not necessary to do that, it’s just there to be had if you can open yourself to it, or develop some ability to find it. And I guess I hope that, maybe, the experience I’ve created will carry, something they can take with them when they step out. And experience the world a little differently how they would inside that theater. [...]
I’ve got an installation running at a museum here at San Francisco, called Sonic Shadows. In that work, the sounds that I’m taking are coming from the boiler room of the museum. So if you walk into this boiler room, you think to yourself, “My gosh, what a lot of noise.” There’s just a lot of machinery and it’s really loud. And what I did was I did a lot of research in this boiler room, and put 12 accelerometers on different machines and pipes and things, which sort of turned this noise in that room into a musical instrument. I’m extracting these very delicate, quick musical sounds that are hidden in all these machines, and these are projected into the space of the museum. And when people hear it, nobody really imagines that it’s being produced by a boiler room. In the building, people imagine that they’re natural sounds, actually. And to me, that’s quite funny.

The L: So what are you working on now? Any projects you’ve been planning?

Fontana: I’ve been working on a project for London for a foundation that’s actually primarily a medical research foundation called the Wellcome Trust. [...]
They had approached me about an interest in an old project of mine from Paris in 1994 called Sound Island. I took the live sound of the sea from the Norman coast and wrapped it around the Arc de Triomphe. And they were intrigued by that project. The side effects of that—besides from making the noisiest place in Paris sound like the seaside—is that the sound of the sea is a natural form of white noise, and so it has the ability to mask traffic sound. And so in that project, when you stood on the island of the Arc de Triomphe, besides very vividly sounding like the beach, you couldn’t hear the cars anymore. Not because it was so loud, but just because it had masking properties. So they approached me to develop a project like that on a building on Euston Road, where I would take the live sound of the sea from the British coast and put it on the side of a building. And the Wellcome Trust was selected because, first of all, they’re a very wealthy foundation. They can support a project like this. But they’re also interested in health and wellness issues. So I’m going to do a project for them that’s going to go up in September called White Sound: Urban Seascape, which will take the large sound of a very beautiful bit of British coast and wrap the sound of the building with it. And so we will try to mask traffic noise on a very, very noisy road in London.

The L: You talked a little bit before about the influence of John Cage, but have you always possessed this musical way of perceiving the world? Or were there specific experiences that illuminated this for you before you came across Cage?

Fontana: I have very vivid memories of when I was a preteen and adolescent. I grew up in Cleveland, and I used to study composition with the assisting conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra. His name was Louis Lane. But the Cleveland Orchestra is located in a building adjacent to quite a beautiful park called—I’m having a senior moment, I can’t remember the name of the park—but it was next to quite a beautiful park. And I used to remember waiting in this park before I was supposed to go to Severance Hall to meet this guy and I found myself listening to the sounds of this garden and finding them as interesting as the sounds inside of the music that I would hear in the concert hall. And at first I used to think there was something really strange about me.

The L: Like kind of a weird superpower?

Fontana: Or some kind of—I thought, you know, I maybe had some kind of psychological issue. And I was really afraid to tell anybody about this. And then I remember going and getting my first portable recorder, and I started making recordings of sounds whenever I felt this way, and then it just developed slowly.
When I was a kid, I was probably 10 or 11 years old at the time. I had never been any kind of virtuoso musician. I would sit at a piano and just make up music, but I was never concert pianist material. I was too lazy to work in that. But I can remember in one of those long, boring, hot summers in Cleveland, going to a music store and buying some paper—it was like pre-made for symphony orchestras, it had the names of the instruments on it. And at that time in my life, I was already very interested in classical music, especially Mozart—I really loved Mozart when I was a kid. And I decided I was going to try to write a symphony. I didn’t know anything about writing music at that time, but I had nothing else to do that summer, so I—I sort of tried to write a symphony. And I remember taking this thing down to this music school, called Cleveland Music School Settlement, and going up to the receptionist and asking if I could see somebody. Like a patient going to see a doctor or something. And they brought me into see this guy-and he looked a little bit like Albert Einstein. You walk into his office and there was two grand pianos with busts of famous composers and stacks and stacks of scores. A professor in music theory, he had glasses on, and he looked down at these scores and just kind of shook his head. And I think he was convinced that I was totally a nutcase. And I’m kind of haunted by that memory, because every time I talk to a curator or a director of a museum now that I have an idea that’s really kind of out-there someplace, I have this fear that they’re going to react to me the same way.

The L: Well, I guess that’s motivation, right? To keep showing them wrong.

Fontana: Well, it didn’t slow me down.

The video above is a recording sample from “Silent Echoes.” The installation is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m., June 15, June 29, July 6 and August 3. It’s also open the weekend of August 13, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.