Sound­tracks of de­sign

Mod­ernist de­signer Harry Ber­toia was also a pi­o­neer in ex­per­i­men­tal sound, cre­at­ing oth­er­worldly sonic land­scapes from sim­ple metal sculp­tures. Now a box set of his dream­like works takes us to a wider cos­mos. Andy Battaglia heads into or­bit

The National - News - The Review - - Music - Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work ap­pears in The Wall Street Jour­nal, Frieze, The Paris Re­view and more.

Many peo­ple have seen a dish rack and, at some point or other, knocked pieces of metal to­gether in a way that roused the sound of in­ci­den­tal chimes. Harry Ber­toia might be alone, how­ever, in hav­ing made iconic cre­ations from ex­pe­ri­ences of the sort.

The eas­i­est way to hear them is by way of Som­nam­bi­ent, a new 11-CD box set as­sem­bling al­bums that Ber­toia made – in the spirit of a com­pound word he de­vised to evoke a sleepy sense of som­nam­bu­lism and am­bi­ence as well – while record­ing his sound-sculp­tures in their nat­u­ral habi­tat in his barn.

An Ital­ian-born Amer­i­can artist ac­tive in the fer­tile mid­dle of the last cen­tury, Ber­toia is best-known for his work in fur­ni­ture de­sign, most no­tably a revered “Di­a­mond Chair” that was con­ceived in 1952 and con­tin­ues to be man­u­fac­tured and sold around the world. Made up of a lat­tice­work of coated wire with a thin cush­ion in the cen­tre, the chair is struc­turally com­plex but min­i­mal­ist in its look – as much air as a chair it­self. Ber­toia claimed the idea for it and a line of other re­lated pieces came from an or­di­nary house­hold dish rack of a va­ri­ety that re­mains a sta­ple in many kitchens decades later.

The Di­a­mond Chair is as em­blem­atic of the cel­e­brated style of mid-cen­tury mod­ernism as any­thing from the pe­riod, plac­ing Ber­toia in a pan­theon in­clud­ing Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saari­nen and oth­ers of the de­sign-minded type. He was a ma­jor fig­ure in a dis­ci­pline with a sig­nif­i­cant in­fras­truc­ture and in­dus­try be­hind it.

Much lesser-known, but com­ing in now for a wel­come swell of at­ten­tion, is Ber­toia’s fas­ci­nat­ing de­vo­tion to the more ob­scure realm of ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic and sound.

Among his many other cre­ations – sculp­ture, jew­ellery, draw­ings and prints among them – Ber­toia made a for­mi­da­ble col­lec­tion of sound sculp­tures that sum­mon oth­er­worldly tones. The prin­ci­ple of them is sim­ple: pieces of metal (steel, brass, bronze, cop­per) mostly un­adorned and ar­ranged so that touch­ing them or prompt­ing them to move gets mu­sic go­ing and re­ver­ber­at­ing for ex­tended spells of time, like chimes wa­ver­ing in the at­mos­phere. Some of them are taller than a per­son. Oth­ers are as short as a dog. All of them re­sound in ways that are calm­ing and catalysing at once. Sound, for Ber­toia, was more than a mat­ter of earthly res­o­nances and tones. “He heard the voice of the wind,” reads a mes­sage on the artist’s tomb­stone, on the grounds of his home out­side the city of Philadel­phia, Penn­syl­va­nia. “Bring­ing sound from form to life. We now echo his love.”

Ber­toia died in 1978, at the age of 63, and his burial site is in a sig­nif­i­cant lo­ca­tion: be­neath a gi­ant gong. The in­stru­ment, 10 feet in di­am­e­ter and weigh­ing 2,000 pounds, was the largest of Ber­toia’s many mu­sic-mak­ing con­trap­tions, most of which he de­signed and built in a pas­toral barn. Sounds from them are trans­port­ing, as if tuned into fre­quen­cies of oth­er­worldly origins, from dis­tant places as well as dis­tant times. They seem some­how fu­tur­is­tic and an­cient si­mul­ta­ne­ously, elec­tronic in their ef­fects but nat­u­ral­is­tic and el­e­men­tal too.

The new boxset ar­rives via the search­ing sonic ad­ven­tur­ers of Im­por­tant Records, a small Amer­i­can la­bel be­hind big re­leases by ex­per­i­men­tal-mu­sic mak­ers like Eleh, Pauline Oliv­eros, Cather­ine Chris­ter Hen­nix, John Oswald and scores more. It’s a wel­come point of en­try into a lin­eage and a legacy that was lit­tle-known be­fore now.

The record­ings sound less like record­ings than in­can­ta­tions – a sort of chan­nelling of au­ral events that are al­ways hap­pen­ing in a sense but some­times sound­lessly so. In a way, that’s what the sound sculp­tures are: man­i­fes­ta­tions of sound con­tin­u­ously in ac­tive or at least po­ten­tial-en­ergy form. A stiff breeze could get some of them go­ing, or a gen­tle touch could reg­is­ter and then ring on for a long time. In any case, the sounds seem less a re­sult of out­side in­ter­ac­tion than of some­thing in­side the in­stru­ments them­selves. The ti­tles of the long tracks on the in­di­vid­ual al­bums tell a story: Echoes of Other Times, Space Voy­age, Phos­pho­res­cence, El­e­men­tal, Pas­sage, Con­tin­uum and Here and Now. So does the book­let that ac­com­pa­nies them, which opens with Im­por­tant la­bel boss John Brien pay­ing trib­ute to the still-stand­ing Ber­toia barn and its spe­cial sta­tus as a tran­quil place “in­su­lated from the rest of the world”.

A dif­fer­ent set­ting very much part of the chaotic, clang­ing world is the Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign in New York, where the cu­ri­ous Ber­toia fol­lower can en­counter even more boun­ties of the artist’s div­ina­tion of sound. Re­cently opened and on view into the au­tumn, the ex­hi­bi­tion At­mos­phere for En­joy­ment: Harry Ber­toia’s En­vi­ron­ment for Sound fea­tures doc­u­men­ta­tion and ephemera re­lated to the work as well as a store of “sound sculp­tures” free to be played by any­one with the temer­ity to do so.

Past a sign en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to ven­ture on and take ad­van­tage, a bat­tery of the sculp­tures stands still or other­wise gen­tly sway­ing, and the ef­fect of stir­ring one to singing ac­tion proves trans­form­ing in sur­pris­ing ways.

Metal + in­ter­ac­tion = sound. We all prob­a­bly have a gen­eral sense of what that would en­tail and what the re­sult might be. The ef­fect of it, though, is elec­tri­fy­ing in a man­ner that is hard to fully ac­count for. There’s a spe­cial del­i­cacy in the in­stru­ments’ el­e­gant, aes­thet­i­cally invit­ing de­signs.

In­deed, the show is paired with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, Bent, Cast & Forged: The Jew­elry of Harry Ber­toia. But there’s some­thing even more com­pelling in the artist’s ev­i­dent faith in them, ex­pressed over decades of dis­cern­ing work and true ded­i­ca­tion.

“Ber­toia ex­plained that his prints are not ab­stract,” a block of wall text says about cer­tain of the artist’s vis­ual works, “but rather his imag­in­ing of cos­mic re­la­tion­ships, plan­e­tary sys­tems and gal­ax­ies.” Con­nec­tions of the sort seem hear­able in the sound sculp­tures as well – con­nec­tions to earthly met­als and sat­is­fy­ing shapes but also a wider cos­mos that, time­lessly, we are all small but sig­nif­i­cant play­ers in too.

Son­am­bi­ent Harry Ber­toia Im­por­tant Records Dh360

Harry Ber­toia. Be­low, the Di­a­mond Chair (1952). Courtesy Im­por­tant Records; Joshua McHugh / Knoll Stu­dio

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