For the past thirty years American artist Bill Fontana has created installations throughout the world using sound as a sculptural medium to interact with and transform perceptions of visual and architectural spaces. He has installed public artworks at iconic locations in many of the world’s great cities, including London’s Big Ben, San Francisco’s Golden Gate and Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. His latest work, entitled Sonic Shadows, is an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The work transforms the museum’s dramatic circular skylight and fifth-floor steel truss pedestrian bridge into musical instruments. Commissioned as part of SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary celebration, Sonic Shadows is Fontana’s first truly kinetic and interactive sound sculpture. While Fontana’s previous works typically relocated environmental sounds to a remote location such as a museum, he is now exploring ambient and live sounds generated by specific spaces in response to the energy of weather, visitors, or a building’s infrastructure. The artist’s concept for Sonic Shadows grew out of these recent investigations into how architectural structures resonate. Fontana’s work employs eight Meyer Sound MM- 4XP miniature self-powered loudspeakers, working in conjunction with four moving ultrasonic Holosonics AS24 transducers, to reproduce sounds generated organically by vibrations inside the building. Simon Duff met up with Bill Fontana to find out more.
SD: Do you think that the concept of buildings as musical instruments will take music and sound art into new, exciting territory?
BF: Yes I do because when I did the Sonic Shadows project I came to the realisation that it is possible to turn any building into a kind of musical instrument. The building itself will become a source and subject of a lot of interesting sonic material, not only the building but also the surroundings. I am interested in how music patterns exist all around us.
SD: How did you get started in making sound art?
BF: I started making sound pieces in New York in the late ’60s. At that time I was experimenting in painting, as well as being an academic and student of philosophy. In terms of music I took a class in experimental music composition and started doing a lot of work with found sounds. I decided at that time that this is the path that I would explore and was particularly interested in the idea of the act of listening. My first work followed the lines of musique concrète and I developed from there.
SD: How can sonic art progress?
BF: Well that is a very open-ended question. My advice to anybody wishing to go down this path is not to get blinded by science and not to get lost in toys. The most important tool you have is your ears and sensitivity.
SD: What is the intention behind Sonic Shadows and will you describe the process by which the work has been realised?
BF: Sonic Shadows is a site-specific work designed for the atrium of the SFMOMA. I was asked by the museum to utilise not only the architecture and the acoustics of the space but also a variety of the sounds I could find in the buildings. What came to fascinate me was a part of the building that not many people saw or experienced or knew anything about which is the boiler room. I started investigating this space with accelerometers on pipes and machines. Accelerometers are really high-calibre microphones capable of picking up vibrations in buildings. I found a dozen different points where I could extract quite musical essences out of these machines and pipes. So I installed a network of twelve accelerometers in the boiler room. I also installed accelerometers on the bridge of the atrium. The end sound sculpture is a mix of these elements played back on a kind of hybrid combination of loudspeakers. There are two types of loudspeaker systems that together create quite an interesting effect. One type is not really a loudspeaker as such. It’s an ultrasonic Holosonics AS24 transducer that produces a very directional beam of ultrasonic frequencies that act as carrier of audible signal. But it is interesting because you can only hear it as a beam of ultrasonic frequencies as it either hits a wall and sort of unravels or if it hits somebody’s ear. And these four ultrasonic speakers are mounted on robotic arms that are scanning the curved walls surrounding the atrium bridge. The throw of these ultrasonic speakers is actually quite long. What happens in gallery spaces and other types of building is that you have these chance encounters for a moment.
SD: Will you tell me about the project you are doing with The Wellcome Trust in London in September?
BF: I have been invited by The Wellcome Trust and the London Borough of Camden to develop a project to go on the façade of the Wellcome Trust Foundation building in Euston Road. I am going to take the sound of the sea from a very interesting part of the Dorset coastline called Chesil Beach then install that sound in real time onto the façade of the building. On a couple of the windows there will be a video projection with images running from Chesil Beach. You have to understand that I have a history with Chesil Beach because in 1999 I was commissioned by the National Maritme Museum in
Greenwich to study the sound of the sea around British coasts and I have a permanent piece installed at the Maritime Museum. So I traveled extensively around the British coast making recordings in many different locations. Chesil Beach was really special.
Sonic Shadows is at SFMOMA until November 6 2011