Music Reviews from the Staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House


March 20, 2016
Harry Bertoia - Complete Sonambient Collection
Harry Bertoia (March 10, 1915-November 6, 1978) was an Italian-born American furniture designer and sculptor and sound artist. He created metal sculptures with an intrinsic and purposeful ability to generate sound. He experimented with the shapes of the sculptures in order to extract particular tones. Each of the eleven cds in this box set represents an lp (one released in 1970 and ten released in 1978) containing two tracks corresponding to side A and side B. The lengths of the tracks reflect the limitations of the medium of the time. Only one track is less than ten minutes and six tracks are a minute or two longer than twenty minutes, with the rest falling somewhere in between. All layers of all tracks are generated by the metal sculptures of Bertoia.

When listening to music that has no lyrics, no rhythm, and no melody, there is the temptation to describe it as ambient music. However, the term ambient music has the connotation of being able to lull the listener into a contemplative state through either repetition or subtle, gradual change. The music of Bertoia, to the contrary, is unceasingly active. Many different movements of the sculptures are present in virtually all of the tracks. This is not music to fall asleep by for as soon as some textured sound lulls one into drowsiness, an abrupt clang will surely rouse them.

The palette of sounds from which these tracks are drawn include many metallic sources--the high-pitched tinkling of chimes, the rolling thunder of sheets of metal, reverberations from collisions of an array of metal rods, clanging gongs with echoes that dissipate slowly, percussive tapping and other subtle textures which correspond to shapes that do not immediately spring to mind. While the music cannot be described as discordant, there are certainly, reoccuring discordant elements spaced through-out the music to startle the listener and re-attune their ear if their attention had begun to drift during a long piece.

The box set comes with a booklet with a few photos of the sculptures and the barn in which they were kept. There are also interviews. In one interview it is noted that encountering the sculptures placed in an institution of fine art where they were silenced and mounted beyond the reach of human hands was disappointing. In this audio document, we have the opposite situation, sound without the visual or physical presence of the sculpture. The severing of the physical from the sonic may disappoint some, but this audio document does allow the music to be heard (again) by a broad audience (at least those with sufficient discretionary income to purchase an $80-$100 box set) and, as such, does not disappoint.

    external links:
  1. Important Records
  3. Harry Bertoia @ wikipedia
  4. Sonambient @ wikipedia

This is the second monumental box set put out by Important Records in recent years. The other was the 12-cd box set, REVERBERATIONS: TAPE & ELECTRONIC MUSIC 1961-1970, of Pauline Oliveros, released in 2012. (label link) The Oliveros release contains early and unreleased electronic recordings from the founder of the Deep Listening program. It is virtually impossible to prioritize which of these two boxes is more essential to the ear interested in the unheard American music of the second half of the twentieth century. However, the work of Bertoia was intended to have a visual element (the sculpture) where as the work of Oliveros was intended exclusively as an audio document. Therefore, it seems the latter has greater potential for new interpretations upon repeated listenings.