Norwegian sound artist Asbjørn Blokkum Flø delves into world of Harry Bertoia and his Sonambient sound installations with John Brien, who released a large collection of these recordings, through his Important Records label.
One of the most interesting releases of 2016 was the 11 CD Box Set Sonambient: Recordings of Harry Bertoia. This incredible re-release of sound artist Harry Bertoia’s recordings from the 1970s, made these albums available to a wider audience for the first time in decades.
Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) is perhaps best known as a designer. He designed one of the 20th century’s most iconic chairs for furniture manufacturer Knoll. But for the largest part of his life he worked as an artist, and the work with sound was essential to this work. In the late ’60s Harry Bertoia renovated a two hundred-year old barn that became important in his sound works. Here he gathered about a hundred sound sculptures, held concerts and made recordings.
Harry Bertoia and his brother Oreste made large quantities of recordings in the barn of what would become 11 albums under the collective term “Sonambient”. These recordings are now being released again by John Brien from the American record label Important Records. We contacted John Brien to hear more about the Sonambient works, and future plans.
What was your first encounter with the Bertoia records?
I bumped into the records on Discogs and I was really surprised. I knew his furniture and I had a picture of Harry over my desk for many years. I had pulled this picture out of a furniture catalog and what appealed to me was how content, peaceful and focused he looked sitting at his desk, working on something, sitting in a chair of his own design. I never really looked into him much further and was really surprised to discover that he’d made these interesting records.
How did you discover all the unreleased Bertoia tapes?
I discovered the archival tapes on a visit to the barn. They were out in the open, visible for anyone to see, and had sat there for many years. There’s no reel-to-reel player in the barn and I’m astonished that nobody thought to listen to them. I immediately offered to archive them, of course, mostly because I wanted to get to hear all of these private moments that nobody had ever heard before.
You initiated a Bertoia Kickstarter campaign. What was the goal behind this?
The main goal of the Kickstarter campaign was to raise the funds necessary to archive the tapes in the highest possible quality. Having the tapes archived in a studio would have been prohibitively expensive and building a studio to do the job was the most practical thing to do. One fantastic byproduct of the Kickstarter campaign was the fact that it really got people talking about Bertoia as a sound artist. There was a lot of press and it seemed to give the whole endeavor some good momentum. There was no way I could have funded the project on my own and it certainly feels good to have a lot of support.
On the campaign you collaborated with the children of Harry Bertoia, how did this turn out?
All of Bertoia’s children want exactly what I want – to spread their father’s work and philosophy. They provide invaluable insight through their personal recollections and understanding of their father. I should say however, that one of the most important people in this process has been Beverly Twitchell, a friend and collaborator of Bertoia’s. She worked closely with Bertoia during the last 8 years of his life and she has an Art History PhD so she’s able to understand his work in a much broader context.
How does the sound of the new transfers compared to the original 11 vinyl releases of the 70s?
Actually, 10 of the records were transferred from the original masters. The first record, catalog # LPS 10570, was made about 8 years before the other 10 records which Harry made as he was dying. This first record is a total mystery to me. There are no master tapes; I don’t know who prepared the audio or where it was pressed. I’d love to find those master tapes and I think that they might be lurking somewhere within the tape archive. It’ll be nice to find them and to hopefully discover more information as to how they were made. The box set is done, but the Sonambient archive is just starting so as soon as I find the master reels for the original Sonambient LP I will repress it in all of its analog glory.
The new transfers have improved the sound tremendously. Some of the original records sound good enough, but they’re marred by surface noise and warpage while others don’t sound good at all. Worst of all is the collection of tracks that came out in Japan in the 90’s, which sounds very shrill and the dynamics are way off. The new transfers sound as much like being in the barn as you possibly can, given the gear Harry was using, how it was arranged and how it was recorded.
Did you have any surprises during the transferring process?
I think the biggest surprise from the tapes was the lush warmth and presence of the harmonic overtones. They sound so clear and so present that it is like being with Harry in the barn. It was a very moving experience for me, hearing the tapes for the first time, and it definitely brought me closer to Bertoia and his work.
Do you know anything about Bertoias recording process?
Harry used at least four overhead Sony microphones and recorded straight to tape. Eventually he added a second tape machine and playback monitors so that he could overdub by playing along to another tape. I’m fairly certain that he used a McIntosh 240 tube amplifier for playback and there are photos of playback monitors hanging in the barn in the book that comes with the box set. The shelf he suspended his monitors on is still there and has an early wire sculpture on it. You can hear him perform quite masterfully along with a backwards tape on the piece titled Phosphoresence.
Your LP of unreleased Bertoia material is mastered and cut entirely in the analog domain. Was this process any different than the digital transfers?
I had selected tapes quickly and then realized that I needed to spend a lot more time with the 80+ archival tapes that I have here in order to make the most intelligent decision possible. I’m glad I did this because I was able to find some exemplary and unique recordings! I don’t have to make the transfers and instead have sent the tapes to a mastering and cutting house where it can be done entirely within the analog domain. I love the warmth, of course, but I’m also somewhat spiritual about analog. Harry’s vibrations hit the microphones, went to tape and now those very tapes will vibrate the cutting head without ever becoming digital 1’s and 0’s. I think you get something closer to the source this way and they’ll sound incredible.
How do you feel about the The Sonambient Barn?
I feel very grounded in the barn the way people might feel in a church. No matter how excited I am to go back it’s always surprising to open the door and walk in. I love to be there alone and especially at night in the summer. It’s a place where Harry is still very present despite his long physical absence.
I think the physical structure of the barn works well because it reflects something about Harry’s practical, problem solving, naturally, elemental being. The barn is not ornate in any way but its beauty is derived entirely from its function. Harry didn’t move to New York City even though he knew going there would greatly benefit his art career. Instead, he chose this specific environment deep in the middle of the forest. He said it reminded him of his childhood in Italy – lots of things reminded him of his childhood in Italy – and it was also close to Knoll.
Do you think Harry Bertoias immigrant background influenced him?
About 5 million Italians came to America between 1876 and 1930 and the vast majority of them were laborers. Harry came over with his brother Oreste who worked in a Ford factory and supported Harry during their early years in America. I don’t believe Harry ever took a labor job in America during those early years and was afforded, by Oreste, the ability to focus on art. So, in this way Harry’s story is unlike that of most Italian immigrants and I think it also speaks of the bond that existed between the two brothers. I think what influenced Harry most, in relation to his immigration to America, were his vivid and enduring memories of the 15 years he spent in Italy. The sounds and sights of his time in San Lorenzo were a massive influence throughout his lifetime.
Why do you think the Bertoia Sonambient barn seems perfectly tuned to Bertoias works?
I don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the acoustics in the barn. I could talk about how it sounds but I haven’t explored the acoustics on their own nor have I made any real measurements. To me, it just sounds like the barn and I love it. I’ve brought oscillators there with the intention of sweeping the frequency range in order to elicit sympathetic vibrations and although the results were interesting it also seems somewhat futile to be surrounded by these incredible sculptures and to try to vibrate them remotely. I always pack that stuff up fast and go back to exploring the sculptures with my own hands. They appear beautifully simple but one can always discover a new way to play them. In their own way, they are quite infinite it seems.
Is there a spiritual dimension to this place?
There is definitely a unique spiritual dimension in the barn. In a way, I think this relates to a lot of my favorite music on Important: people who make these fascinating worlds for themselves. It’s spiritual because it’s all enveloping. When you’re in the barn you are completely surrounded by this sound world that is as gorgeous to the ears as it is to the eyes. In fact, like Harry says – you don’t really think about sculpture and sound as separate things when you’re in the barn. They become one. Harry always said that the sculptures would often sound beautiful if they looked beautiful. I’ve found the same to be true of the waveforms on the archive tapes. Usually, the more unique a waveform looks the more interesting the piece is.
The barn can be dissonant if not controlled but it can also be extraordinarily consonant and the inter-sculptural vibrations speak to that. When there are sympathetic vibrations triggered it’s always complimentary given the relationship between the source frequency and the triggered sympathetic frequency. It all adds up to this big, lush sound.
Did Bertoia have a particular idea behind the selection of the sculptures in the barn to your knowledge?
The barn contains “Bertoia’s Bertoias,” to quote Beverly Twitchell. These are the best Sonambient pieces Bertoia made and their collective whole is absolutely one single sculpture and Harry himself explained this on numerous occasions including in an interview with the Archive of American Art. He would bring in new pieces, try them out and either keep them, remove them, or pull them to the side in hopes that they would be added back in. These sculptures sound amazing and have been together for over 40 years. The barn should be preserved in place for all time as an artist’s environment. However, this is ultimately a decision that needs to be worked out within the Bertoia estate and it could go either way. I do my work on behalf of Bertoia and will support whatever decisions are made so that I can continue to do my job – getting the sounds of Bertoia into the world in a way that best reflects the true nature of the barn.
What was the process of making the 11 CD Harry Bertoia Sonambient Collection?
The box set took about 4 years to complete. When I was in the final stretch, when I could see what work was left, it took two months of full-time work, including nights and weekends. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever been able to do and I’m grateful for every single moment of it. It was such a pleasure to be able to give a project the required time to get things right. I wish I were always able to work like this and I hope that going forward I can have more time to get every detail right. While working on the box set I found myself fantasizing about life as an archivist in the art and sound world, but then I would realize that if I were an archivist my dream job would be the job I was already working on!
What was your approach to listening while working on the tape archive?
The archive is at least 350 tapes and the process is a slow one. I’m writing a lot about what I hear and trying to develop some language to describe it in a way that will allow me to review my notes and know exactly what kind of piece is on the tape. There are a few different types of sculptures in the barn and many ways Harry would play them. However, when you hear lots of tapes you start to recognize the differences and similarities.
What other curiosities have you found in the tape archive?
There are many mysteries within the tapes and definitely a greater logic. For instance, there’s a symbol that he would occasionally draw on in his session notes. This symbol is a crossed out circle. I originally thought that it could mean no gongs but that wasn’t correct. I’m still not sure what it means. There are many instances of the phrase “two playing” which could mean a few different things. I’m fairly certain that it means he played along with a tape being broadcast over his monitors. There are a great number of tapes with Italian titles, often “two playing,” written in his brother Oreste’s handwriting. These pieces tend to have a more minimal character and are rather unique. These tapes are dated and the dates coincide with trips his brother took to Pennsylvania. You can’t underestimate Oreste’s influence in Harry’s life and I think there’s even a chance that the Italian titled tapes are of Oreste playing. However, these tapes could be instances of Oreste engineering while Harry plays, Harry and Oreste playing together or even Oreste mixing two of Harry’s session tapes down to one. I think Harry would have liked to mix two tapes down to one because the process would include elements of surprise not unlike his process of making his mono-prints. I’m starting to warm up to the idea that maybe these are Oreste’s tapes, especially given that some of the techniques on these tapes are unique. Oreste Bertoia had a classical musical training and had written a piece for an orchestra. He is a very big part of Sonambient.
Have you detected any change to the recordings over the years?
The tapes are dated with month/day/year so you know exactly when they were recorded. At the moment I only have about 80 tapes, selected at random, and I have probably only listened to 50 of them (this is still the early days of the Sonambient archive) so I don’t have a deep understanding of how things changed over the years. As soon as I can bring all of the tapes into the studio, I’ll organize them chronologically and it will be much easier to make sense of the archive. Harry was always bringing new sculptures into the barn to try them out and eventually he added the ability to play back a tape while recording so I know that these changes are present. What I’m focused on right now is getting better at differentiating between the recordings by getting better at hearing what he was doing, how he was doing it and how it changes from piece to piece. It all seems so limited at first until you really pay attention and the more you focus the more you hear and the more dynamic it all becomes.
Harry didn’t title his sculptures and didn’t really title his recordings either. Most of the titles he used for his original 11 records were either words that came directly from his recording notes or a reference to thoughts evoked by the sounds he’d just played. For instance, I remember thinking that the title “Space Adventure” seemed a bit silly, because I assumed he was evoking some pop concept of outer space but then when I saw his notes, I read that what he’d originally said was that the recording had a “certain spatial quality” so he’s actually talking about something completely different and much more profound.
Do you perceive these tapes as documentations, improvisations, or compositions?
The tapes are experimental documentations, improvisations and compositions. There are multiple instances of him recording first, second and third “runs” as he called them. Like anyone who has mastered their instruments, he was both improvising and composing simultaneously and he’ll go back and do multiple versions of the piece. I don’t think he was writing it down before hand, but he knew what he was doing and could go back and do it again making adjustments he felt were required. A good example from the box set is the side titled Continuum. There are a few versions of that piece in the batch of tapes I have here, so he was definitely trying things over and over until he got them exactly right.
How important are the visual and sculptural qualities to these sounding sculptures?
Bertoia talked about how the visual qualities of a sculpture would tell him a lot about how it would sound. He knew that if a sculpture looked really good it would also probably sound really good. Touch and vibration are essential elements in activating the sculptures and changing their state from a visual form to an audible form. I’m constantly surprised by how many ways there are to play one Bertoia sculpture.
What role did childhood memories play for Bertoia in your opinon?
Before Harry Bertoia came to America he knew only the ten-mile radius around his home in San Lorenzo. Some of his Sonambient pieces, the ones with the big heavy tops, sound like the church bells in San Lorenzo. You hear him going to these particular pieces often on the recordings. He also speaks of other sounds in his environment including gypsies who arrived in San Lorenzo one day and began fixing people’s cookware. There’s a video of Harry talking about this on YouTube where he says that he often wondered whether or not that influenced his sound sculptures. Of course, the natural environment in San Lorenzo influenced his decision to settle in the woods of Deutsch Pennsylvania.
How do you see the Sonambient works in the context of the rest of the works by Bertoia?
When you look at Harry’s work you can see a very fluid continuity from the earliest to the latest pieces and it all gets tied together nicely in his print work. He’s a profoundly aware, awake and attentive person, which is why he noticed early on, in the fifties even, that his metal rods sounded really good. It was in the back of his head for a long time to eventually start making the sounding sculptures. Run a pencil across a Bertoia chair or flick the screen in the Saarinen chapel at MIT with the tip of your fingers and you can hear what he heard. Because he is such a “deep listener” (as Pauline Oliveros would say) he was destined to end up making the Sonambient pieces.
Bertoia may not have been trained as a musician but he clearly loved sound and was very good at paying attention to the world around him. His brother, whose influence is immeasurable, was trained in music and Oreste always encouraged Harry to work in the arts.
Do you have any idea how many sounding sculptures Bertoia made, and when did it all begin?
I’m not sure of numbers but there are thousands of Bertoia sculptures. He was extremely busy during his lifetime. His earliest sound sculptures are from the late 50’s and they are easy to recognize because he started with wire grid bases instead of his traditional thick metal plate bases and there seem to be other early variations as well. There seem to be numerous accounts of when he started making the sound sculptures but Beverly Twitchell straightens this out very clearly by including photographs of Bertoia’s sound sculptures from the late fifties in her essay included in the Sonambient box set. It’s impossible to know when he started thinking in terms of sound sculptures.
What have you concluded as to the origins of his Sonambient art?
I think the most important influence on Sonambient is the fact that Harry was a very alert person, a naturally deep observer. He was aware of the world around him and paid attention not just to how things looked but to how things sounded as well. I don’t think he had a lot of internal dialogue distracting him from paying attention to his surroundings. I think that he was always paying close attention to everything so he remembered the way things sounded as much as the way they looked and because of that he was able to discover his own music through his work as a sculptor.
His brother’s role seems to have been an important one?
I have heard that it was Oreste who had encouraged Harry to accumulate the large orchestra of the Sonambient sculptures. There are photos in the Bertoia archive of Harry and Oreste playing together and there are many tapes in which appear to be recordings of Oreste playing the sculptures in the barn. It’s too early to say for certain whether these recordings are actually Oreste alone, but there are many clues to suggest that they are. Regardless, Sonambient is something Harry shared with Oreste and it’s clearly something that they enjoyed together. I know I have said this before, but I don’t believe it’s possible to over-estimate Oreste’s significance in the Sonambient barn.
Last year you released new records by artists Emanuele Giannini (EMG), Tara Jane O’Neil, and Eleh, where the artists use, and interpret Bertoia’s sound sculptures in new ways. First off, how did you get in touch with EMG for the Harry Bertoia 100th anniversary LP/DVD?
EMG reached out to me about the project when it was finished and he needed a way to get it out into the world. I was reluctant to distribute it for him because I didn’t want to over saturate with Bertoia but his efforts were quite thoughtful. He took sculptures made by Harry’s son Val and brought them to Harry’s home in San Lorenzo where he recorded the sounds of Val’s sculptures resonating. He even got the sound of the natural surrounding and church bells, which were so inspiring for Bertoia. I couldn’t say no!
How does the Eleh and Tara Jane Oneil split release compare to the EMG one?
TJO’s composition combined recordings of Bertoia with field recordings she made of Athanasius Kircher’s Bell Wheel which, I suppose, is an early example of sound art but it’s also similar to the rotational prayer bells. Sonambient sculptures and bells have similar resonant properties so they sound good together and Tara weaves it all into a wonderful composition. The Eleh piece is pure homage – a literal attempt to synthesize Bertoia gongs (especially the tall gong in the barn) and then ring them 100 times for 100 years of Bertoia. So, Tara’s piece uses his sounds in an original composition, with Eleh I pay simple respect and EMG connects Sonambient sculptures back to their roots in Italy.
Do you have any plans for more Bertoia related works?
I’m hoping to released Olivia Block’s Sonambient Pavilion recordings and maybe some interesting field recordings of Harry’s commissioned outdoor sculpture park for Standard Oil. Someone emailed me saying that they’d made microphone and hydrophone recordings in the early 90’s and I’m really excited to hear them.
Last year I re-launched Harry’s Sonambient label in hope of releasing a few new CDs and LPs every year. As I said earlier, the completion of the Sonambient box is really just the beginning and I’m eternally grateful for that. Much like the barn itself, once you enter the world of Bertoia you don’t want to leave.
- You can read more about Harry Bertoia and especially his Norwegian connection over on Ballade.no.
“Asbjørn Blokkum Flø is a composer, musician and sound artist with a focus on electronic music and sound art. Over the course of several installations he has developed an artistic practice where both the timbre of sound and its existential potential are examined in parallel to create works of immediacy within the sound art tradition.”