REALLY GOOD VIBRATIONS: Harry Bertoia's Sonambient Sound Sculptures
A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST VAL BERTOIA
Harry Bertoia first gained fame as an industrial designer, creating the wireframe “diamond chair” for Knoll in 1952. Its success enabled Bertoia to pursue his passion as an artist, which took an immediate turn with his creation of sound sculptures, which he named Sonambient. David St.-Lascaux talked with the artist Val Bertoia, Harry’s son, at Bertoia Studio in Bally, Pennsylvania.
David St.-Lascaux (Rail): I encountered your father’s ghost recently at Detroit Disassembled, an exhibition at the Queens Museum, on the site of the 1964 – 65 World’s Fair, where his “Dandelion” sculpture was the hit of the Kodak Pavilion. A caption stated that he was one of the illustrious alumni of Cass Technical High School. Who was this man who came to America at age 15 and dedicated his life to art, producing over 50,000 works, and raised a family in rural Pennsylvania?
Val Bertoia: Harry Bertoia was a dynamic inventor and experimenter. He was born in Italy in 1915 and came as a teenager to America, where his talent was recognized and rewarded. Today, thousands of people worldwide have been influenced by his work.
Rail: After scholarships in Detroit and Cranbrook, he went to California, working at Eames. Then he moved to Bally to work at Knoll, where he created the diamond chair. What was it like in Bally?
Bertoia: I was about two years old when our family moved to Pennsylvania. Bertoia Studio was established in 1952. It was actually Knoll’s design workshop at that time, when Harry began, by hand, designing the various wire-grid chair forms. In 1950, they were so far-out that people couldn’t understand Harry. He was way ahead of his time. For example, people didn’t realize that a chair could be made of wire that way. But it wasn’t chair-designing that he was meant to do. It was sculpture that intrigued him. In 1952 – 54, he branched off into fine art.
Rail: The chair is significant because of its connection to Sonambient. What the chair does with space, Sonambient does with sound—it permeates it. I read that when Harry touched the chair wires together, they made a sound—and that’s how he discovered Sonambient.
Bertoia: Yes, it was a result of his metalwork. We can say that the chair, a combination of air and metal, makes the human body comfortable, whereas the sound sculptures make the human spirit comfortable.
Rail: As a youth, Harry loved music; it’s said that he wished there was a musical instrument that anyone could play instantly. In one anecdote, he recalled gypsies passing through town banging pots and pans.
Bertoia: That was an influence. In the workshop, he’d bang out these huge and beautiful forms in copper so that they’d be good gongs, which represent one kind of Sonambient instrument.
Rail: Harry’s description of Sonambient—that it is a “spatial and tonal environment”—is poetic. What did he mean?
Bertoia: Harry was going beyond the physical world. His definition connected with the human mind, language, and communication. He was predating computers by telepathy, not necessarily of words, but a telepathy of feelings, a telepathy of connecting mind to mind. All human minds are connected, of course.
Rail: In order to play a Sonambient sculpture, you need to interact with it. Did Harry ever talk about interactivity? Did he observe the relationship between humans, music, and art?
Bertoia: Sonambients are friendly aliens. Harry made them in the human range of comfort through the movements, sounds, visuals, and textures he used. All of this lent itself to human interaction. Harry used beryllium copper rod, which was used for military purposes, for a peaceful, friendly purpose—the movement and sound are so healing, soothing, and fun. Giving the sculptures a hug, or gently touching them, letting them sway, are peaceful interactions.
Rail: Reflecting on Carl Sagan’s disk, which went off with Pioneer: If we had sent up a Sonambient sculpture, we would’ve expressed ourselves more eloquently than through pictures and recordings.
Bertoia: Very true. Sonambient is much more enhancing to communication. It’s the ultimate aspiration to enlightenment.
Rail: The possible Sonambient permutations have been described as infinite: different metals, lengths, thicknesses, configurations. It seems Harry had set himself up for multiple lifetimes of experimentation. What forms do Sonambients take, and how do they sound? What are your favorites?
Bertoia: There are some intriguing tall ones—the way they move. Many Sonambients are vertical columns, rods, or bundles. The interesting part is the feeling of human being, and recognizing these as never-ending in two respects. One is design, where it goes on for generations—we can design sound sculptures to no end. The other is the never-ending sound itself. Some of the low tones are so soothing, wonderful, and settling. The human ear will only hear a few minutes of sound tapering off, yet the sounds Harry played back in the ’70s are still going out into the universe, like rays emanating from the sun.
Harry also minimized gravity to maximize the sound quality, and he would have preferred if these sculptures levitated, which wasn’t possible to do. He would put a Sonambient on a layer of Styrofoam, which is mostly air, and the sound would be maximized.
Rail: Did the suspended sculpture at the M.I.T. Chapel simulate levitation?
Bertoia: When we look at the M.I.T. Chapel sculpture, we see many leaves suspended on very fine, almost invisible wires. We definitely see a minimal gravitational effect, where the leaves are floating down from the sky or from the spirit.
Rail: It sounds like you are describing a Calder mobile. Did Harry know Calder? Was he familiar with Noguchi?
Bertoia: Calder was not necessarily influential—each had his own design techniques. There is similarity in the graceful movements and colors. Noguchi’s work was also related to Harry’s, being close to nature and refining what nature gives us. Noguchi traded a sculpture with him, a wonderful stone piece.
Rail: And also Giacometti. When you look at bundled Sonambients, they’re like toothpicks.
Bertoia: Giacometti had thin, tall human forms. Harry was pleased with that, the idea of exaggerating human height to 10, 12, or 18 feet high. Conversely, Sonambients could shrink a human being: We have a 12-foot Sonambient where the human is dwarfed.
Rail: Let’s talk about the sounds. How long do the vibrations continue on a typical Sonambient?
Bertoia: It varies. Some pieces, if we touch them by hand, go on audibly for 10 to 15 minutes; of course, we know that sound waves continue on forever. Some of them are short: Brush the rods and there might be a couple of minutes of sound, and then it dissipates. And then we have the gong, which has a continuously smooth tone all the way through.
Rail: When you give Sonambient performances, how many sculptures do you play? When do you perform?
Bertoia: Typically, I have six different groups of favorites. Within each group some complement others, while some fight against the others. I like playing with them spontaneously. Our season is from March 10 through November 6, Harry’s birth and death dates.
Rail: Sonambients have been compared to metallic harps. You’ve said that they can be touched, struck, or brushed.
Bertoia: That’s the fun of experimenting. I love strumming the base of a rod sculpture for a harp effect. The base of the rods builds up to visually move the rods themselves, and you can visually see this: They are flexing, curving, and touching. At the point of touching, of course, there’s a different type of sound. The other effect is purposely touching the tops, bringing them together, and letting them go. Another is calmly touching one and creating a chain reaction.
Rail: So there is a simultaneous visual experience while the sound is occurring.
Bertoia: The movement is fascinating, especially with sunlight coming through the window.
Rail: I assume that most people have never heard Sonambient before. How do they describe the experience?
Bertoia: Typically small groups of 2 to 12 attend, seated comfortably in Bertoia chairs. I give some background because they don’t know what to expect. As soon as I begin touching the sculptures, right away they close their eyes, they relax. After 15 to 20 minutes, I ask them how they feel, what they feel. I get wonderful feedback: “This is the most wonderful thing in my life; it’s opened me up to new realities”; “This is extending my way of thinking.” It’s fascinating to learn how they mentally and audibly interact.
Rail: You mention music as a healing concept.
Bertoia: It was a tragedy that Harry, such a strong man physically and mentally, lost his human voice due to welding. Listening to these sounds became his favorite pastime. It was healing for him. Just like hugging human beings, Sonambient provides a comforting, loving feeling.
Rail: There is an aspect of Sonambient that reminds one of musical minimalists: John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich. Did they ever meet Harry?
Bertoia: He knew of them, but as far as meeting, maybe not. When Philip Glass plays piano, there are multiple layers of sounds. Harry was the same way: He would hit a gong or a tall piece, and the whole cloud of sound was similar.
Rail: How have musicians discovered Sonambient? Which musicians have incorporated Sonambient into their compositions?
Bertoia: Early on, Wally Phillips played Harry’s sounds over the radio on WGN in Chicago. Later, the Kronos Quartet experimented with Bertoia sounds, but not with live sculptures on stage.
Rail: There is something about spectral music, such as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, that suggests that Sonambient would harmonize well with the human voice.
Bertoia: When Harry was alive, his sister Ave, who is now in her 90s, would use her voice to resonate with the sculptures. It sounded like angels. In Harry’s case, as his own voice faded, his Sonambient voice emerged.
Rail: Of the Sonambient recordings, which are most exemplary?
Bertoia: We converted Harry’s 11 recordings to a package of six CDs. The very first one is the most amazing. Because it was spontaneous, it was the best.
Rail: Melissa Strawser is mentioned on the Bertoia Studio website as sharing with you in the stewardship of Harry’s legacy, specifically his monoprints, which were said to be prototypes for Sonambients.
Bertoia: Melissa is educated in printmaking, and she was the one who discovered how valuable these early monoprints were. There was a close connection with his discovery of sound in metals and his monoprints, from which he made the sound pieces.
Rail: Jeffrey Eger captured Sonambient on film in his Sonambient: The Sound Sculpture of Harry Bertoia in 1977. Is this film shown today?
Bertoia: This film is not on the market, and it’s not shown often.
Rail: Sonambient seems to encapsulate curiosity and discovery—the principles of creativity that seem to have driven Harry.
Bertoia: Discovery in his life made all the difference. Discovering its sound set metal itself apart. Discovery is the whole purpose of life, from Harry’s generation to our own—and beyond. And that is the essence of Bertoia.