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Sculptures you can hear: Why Harry Bertoia’s ‘Sonambient’ art still resonates

Inside the Pennsylvania barn where Harry Bertoia created massive sound sculptures. (Courtesy of Important Records)

BALLY, PA. – It’s a cold, icy January day in the Pennsylvania countryside, and especially frigid in this unheated barn, filled with metal. But there’s warmth in the air, and it comes from a sound. It’s loud, intense and overwhelming — a deep ringing that seemingly could last forever.

These huge reverberations emanate from copper and bronze sculptures, gathered in the barn like a dense metal jungle. Val Bertoia weaves through them, playing them as he has for decades. He brushes bundles of tall rods that stand upright on square bases; they sway and collide, creating radiant tones. He taps short bars hanging from the ceiling, which connect and chime. He rubs wide gongs with a cloth mallet, and humanlike cries bellow forth.

“I can almost play these blindfolded; I know exactly where they all are,” Bertoia, 65, says as echoes bounce from the barn walls. “Yet something is always different — the temperature or the sunlight or the audience — and it makes it a different experience every time.”

That element of surprise was intended by Val’s father, Harry Bertoia, when he created these “sounding sculptures” in the 1960s and ’70s. He was already a world-renowned designer and sculptor — most famous for ­diamond-shaped chairs that remain popular today — when he came upon the idea to create art that makes sound.

One day, Bertoia was bending a wire when it broke and struck another. The resulting sound quickly caught his ear. “Immediately, the question came to mind,” he recalled in a 1972 interview, “if one wire produces such a sound, what would two rods produce, or what would 10, or a hundred?” Bertoia, who died in 1978 at age 63, devoted the last two decades of his life to that question.

He crafted scores of sound sculptures in varied shapes and sizes, each so tonally distinct that he likened playing a new one to “hearing the cry of a newborn baby.” He remodeled his barn to house these pieces, played them for visitors and recorded them for self-released albums that became legendary in the world of experimental sound art.

This passion for making sound with sculptures — a process Bertoia called “Sonambient” — was fueled by a simple desire. “Harry always wished that there would be some instrument that you didn’t have to train on to become a master, and this was his solution,” explains his daughter Celia. “Anyone from a 2-year-old to a ­90-year-old could play these sculptures, and whatever they did would be wonderful. He loved that.”

The sound of metal first fascinated Harry Bertoia as a child in Italy, where he watched gypsies striking pots and pans. He moved to America as a teenager, following his father and older brother Oreste (who later played the sculptures with Harry and encouraged him to record their sounds). Bertoia became a star student at some of Michigan’s best design schools. After graduating, he worked with designer Charles Eames in California, then moved to Pennsylvania to make chairs for the Knoll furniture company.

In the mid-1950s, Bertoia bought the studio space Knoll had set up for him in Bally, a small town about 20 miles east of Reading. He eventually concentrated solely on sound sculptures for the barn and public spaces. (Commissions included a 40-foot-long bronze piece, which is still there, made for Dulles Airport in 1963.)

Val runs the studio today, continuing to oversee the making and selling of Bertoia pieces. He also still lives in the home where Harry and wife, Brigitta, raised him, Celia and their sister, Lesta. It’s a few miles from the studio and a few yards from the Sonambient barn, amid 90 acres of farmland. The fields there are dotted with sculptures by Harry and Val, and the microphones that recorded the sculptures still hang from the barn’s ceilings, beneath the loft where Harry napped between work sessions.

Clearly, much Bertoia history vibrates here, and just as Harry’s Sonabmient sounds seem to last forever, his career still resonates. This year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, will see the publication of Celia’s biography, “The Life and Work of Harry Bertoia,” and the CD reissue of his 11 vinyl albums — all titled “Sonambient” — on Massachusetts label Important Records. Those albums represent just a fraction of his recordings. Important recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the digitization of 360 reel-to-reel tapes that Bertoia left behind.

It may seem odd that Bertoia recorded his sculptures at all, since sound is just one of their dimensions. “It’s art that you both hear and look at,” Celia says of the elegant pieces. “In the barn, you actually feel the vibrations through the wooden floor. So it’s a total sensual experience.” But Bertoia realized that few would venture to Bally to hear him perform, so recordings could bring the Sonambient experience to a wider audience.

That experience, as presented by the records, is entrancing. Each contains two sidelong pieces, with such meditative titles as “Space Voyage,” “Ocean Mysteries,” “All and More” and “Sounds Beyond.” Though the sound is abstract compared with conventional music, it’s also remarkably concrete; you can easily picture the sculptures trembling and clanging in front of you. Some portions are pure, monumental drone, while others have the random, organic aura of field recordings.

At times, Bertoia plays cleverly with subtle repetitions and patiently paced tonal shifts, creating a subconscious rhythm. In other moments, swells and rushes evoke an orchestra’s crescendos, but they rarely imitate specific musical instruments. There’s something uniquely alien about each record, offering a sound that couldn’t be made any other way.

“I had never heard anything like that,” says Val’s childhood friend Peter Greene, whom Harry enlisted to produce the “Sonambient” albums. Bertoia chose specific tapes for each record; a few, he manipulated by overdubbing, changing their speeds or playing them backward. Most of these selections were longer than an LP side, so he tasked Greene to find suitable beginnings and ends.

“It was fascinating,” Greene recalls. “In a way, I had to separate myself from the music, because if I just let it take me away, then I couldn’t do the job I was supposed to be doing. Sometimes, I’d have to snap myself out of that so I could actually make clear decisions.”

“The music is very otherworldly,” concurs Celia. “I’ve done meditations to it, and it takes you way out there. It’s very wild.” Adds Val: “Some people categorize it as healing sounds, and some people categorize it as music, but it’s not really music. That’s why he referred to it as Sonambient — it’s a sound environment.” Harry admitted that the term was “rather clumsy” and once insisted that “labeling it will not change its nature. We can call it Joe and it’s still the same shape.”

The connections between Bertoia’s Sonambient work and such grand concepts as nature and the cosmos are something he apparently contemplated often. In his 20s, Val worked for his father as a part-maker, and remembers that in the studio he was all business.

“But there were times where he would talk, say at dinner, about how he would reach the universe with these sounds,” Val recalls. “He was very connected with nature and its energies, and he found a way to bundle these wires and let gravity form their shape.”

“The idea is to see how close I can get to what appears to be another farther reality or a reality which has not yet come within my sense,” Harry once explained. “It’s a plunge into new dimensions but there are also echoes of the past. Sometimes, when I hear the sounds, they remind me of times that are gone . . . and in many cases they will invite me on toward things that have not quite unfolded.”

According to Celia, those ideas came through in Harry’s performances. A teenager when the barn was remodeled, she remembers running through the sculptures with her high-school friends and gathering them to watch him play. Her father would remove his shoes so the sound of his steps wouldn’t interfere, and would enter what he described as “a kind of reverie . . . a dream.”

“Once he started hitting the pieces and had 10 or 20 going, it was so loud that you had to be right there [mentally],” says Celia. “You couldn’t be thinking about what’s for dinner or whatever. It took me out of the rushing world that we live in; I became very centered and calm, but vibrant at the same time, very alive.”

That effect extended beyond the barn, as many musicians and artists found inspiration in Bertoia’s Sonambient work. He has been praised by the likes of John Cage, the Kronos Quartet and Brian Eno, who included Sonambient sculptures in a London festival installation in 1998. Bertoia’s influence spread beyond art worlds, too: ­Celia recalls undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau hearing his gongs and exclaiming, “Oh, my God, they sound just like whales!”

Bertoia would never know the impact of the “Sonambient” albums. Diagnosed with cancer after making the first LP, he died before the final 10 arrived at his home. They eventually became collector’s items, sometimes fetching large sums internationally, though Val still sells sealed originals to studio visitors for reasonable ­prices.

That most of Bertoia’s music came out posthumously seems fitting for an artist whose work explored echoes and reverberations — the kind that could extend long past the act that created them. That idea is embodied in every sound that comes from his ­sculptures.

“There’s not a defined ending to it,” Val says. “It’s not like playing piano or guitar, where you purposely end notes in order to start other notes, and that’s what Harry liked about it. He loved the idea that each sculpture was free to do its own thing.”