bill fontana's musical sculptures


the shadows of john cage

The first and principal difference between various sounds experienced by our ear,
is that between noises and musical sounds.'
Hermann Helmholtz

Meanwhile, everybody knows John Cage's 4’ 33’’: in 1952 pianist David Tudor sat motionless down before a score where only blank measures were notated. The intention was clear: the silence of art would make audible the very noises that have always been banned from music – or to phrase it with John Cage: ‘You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out’.

The gesture with which Cage replaced the artificial sounds of music with the natural sounds that surround us, can be considered as the symbol of a trend that, from Russolo's 'Art of Noise' (1916) onward, surfaces time and again in the course of the twentieth century. But, while figures like Russolo introduced new instruments producing noise rather than musical sounds, while figures like Kagel, Ligeti and Nono managed to get unusual sounds out of traditional instruments, and while figures like Varèse used recordings of natural sounds as a starting point for a composition, others, in the wake of John Cage, were rather interested in ambient sound.

To the last group belongs Bill Fontana (° 1947). In 1994, on occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the landing in Normandy and the subsequent liberation of Paris, he had the sound of the surf on the coast of Normandy resound around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A remarkable installation, called ‘ Sound Island’. From 1974 onward, Bill Fontana continues to set up ever new - and always interesting - projects in places all over the world: New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Alaska, West Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Thailand, Australiia and Japan (For a survey: visit his website).


Bill Fontana’s projects are not just echoes from Cage's 4’33. In 'Sound Islands', we do not hear the surf on the coast of Normandy, but in the heart of Paris. Even when the concert hall is not precisely the place where we use to hear the sound of the wind or the rain, there is no veritable 'dépaysement' of the sound in Cage’s 4’ 33’’.

In that sense, Bill Fontana's creations have more in common with Duchamp's ready-mades – or with André Breton's ‘objet trouvé’, which is positively dislocated from its original context, and precisely owes its status of ‘objet trouvé’ to such dislocation. By analogy, we could speak of ‘sons trouvés’. Strictly speaking, a ‘son trouvé’ cannot but be the rendering of an ambient noise or sound on another place. For sounds cannot be just picked up and carried away like a pebble: they first have to be captured by a microphone, transformed into electric signals and transmitted to another place, where they have to be transformed into sound again.

But Bill Fontana does more then merely relocate sounds. Already the example of ‘Sound Island’ demonstrates that he carefully selects the new context in which the sound is rendered. As a result, the hosting location is affected - 'displaced' - in the first place.

That is why Bill Fontana’s creations have more in common with the ‘object surréaliste’ than with the ‘objet trouvé’ -certains objets qu’on n’approche qu’en rêve (André Breton). On the understanding that, with Bill Fontana, we are not dealing with the combination of two visible objects - as when he had not transported the sounds of the waves, but the waves themselves from the Atlantic Ocean to Paris:

The photomontage above - to be found on the website of Bill Fontana - clearly shows in which tradition 'sound Islands' is to be placed and how Bill Fontana contributes to its further development:the aural appearance of one object is combined with the visual appearance of another object. We are dealing here with a cross-sensitory ‘object surréaliste’ (or assemblage) - or to phrase it in Bill Fontana own words: with 'a transparent overlay to visual space'.

object 1
aural (- visual)
object 2 (- aural) visual

Just like the surrealist 'objet trouvé' or 'object surréaliste', Bill Fontana's installation is a genuine work of art: through the combination of an existing visual object with an equally existing sound dislocated from its original context and now conjuring up the representation of waves, an imaginary world is created. And that imaginary world is all the more estranging since it looms up in the middle of the real world.


In earlier creations like ‘Entfernte Züge’ (1983) - an echo of Pierre Schaeffer's 'Etude aux chemins de fer' (1949) - the concept was far more one-dimensional: sounds captured in the Köln Hauptbahnhof were rendered on the ruins of the former ‘Anhalter Bahnhof’ in Berlin. Where formerly real platforms with real passengers and real trains were to be seen, now resounded the sounds from the busiest train station in Europe.

The effect must have been very estranging: to hear the sound of trains and passengers without seeing them. Which certainly will have induced the public to switch to the dimension of representation – and to conjure up the visual reality that would have been there were the station not destroyed in the end of the Second World War.

There is no question any more of an ‘objet surréaliste’, here in the Berlin 'Entfernte Züge'. Rather are we dealing with pure, unbroken aural mimesis: the conjuring up of an object or a world through providing their aural appearance - as when in an old castle the sounds of hooves and clang of arms were rendered to make the Middle Ages revive. Such aural mimesis is not new: it has always been customary in the theatre, as when the sound of thunder or of the wind are imitated. But the possibilities increased dramatically as soon as sound recording was invented. Even when the imitation of thunder has to be followed by an imitation of lightning, as a rule, it suffices to provide the aural appearance to conjure up the corresponding visual reality: when hearing his voice in the radio, the face of the speaker; when hearing the ringing of the bells of Rome, the sight of Saint Peter's square; when hearing the crickets chirp, the Provence - and when hearing the sounds of the Kölner Bahnhof, platforms with passengers under a huge iron and glass vault

Although aural mimesis is art, it is not music: it would enter nobody's mind to call the evocation of knights in a castle or the evocation of trains in a station music. There is no doubt that also music conjures up a world, but music proceeds in a totally different way (see: ‘Musical space'). Hence, Bill Fontana’s creations are not a revolutionary stride in the development of music. Rather do they revive - if not bring to live - a nearly related branch of art that could only truly develop through the invention of recording and electronic sound production.

We now can better describe ‘Sound Island’ as a combination of an existing visual object with aural mimesis. The difference with ‘Entfernte Züge’ is only that the combination in ‘Sound Island’ is not ‘probable', but 'surrealistic'. But only now do we fully realise that Bill Fontana is doing more then merely relocating sounds: in the place where they now resound, the accompanying visual representation is also conjured up. And that goes not only for ‘Entfernte Züge’ in the Anhalter Bahnhof, but also for ‘Sound Island’ in Paris: nobody has the impression that it is cars that suddenly begin to produce the sounds of waves. Rather is the visual perception of cars replaced with the representation of a sea, just like the aural appearance of the waves is replacing the drone of the cars.

The description ‘cross-sensitory assemblage’ applies only on the level of the means. On the level of the world that is conjured up effectively two worlds are combined, so that we have to remove the brackets here:

object 1 aural visual
object 2 aural visual


And that reminds us of the fact that, with Bill Fontana, the sounds conjure up absent visual objects, while, with John Cage, the sounds belong to present objects: the rain and the wind outside, the public in the concert hall. It appears that we have to discern two kinds of soundscape. Next to the soundscape that conjures up the accompanying visual appearance - the evocative soundscape - we have the soundscape that we hear when closing our eyes for visual appearances and when listening to what there is to be heard here and now. Such real soundscapes are the sound of the surf, thunder, the chirping of crickets, the concert of birds in a wood - or the countless man-made soundscapes: the market cries, the sound of hooting horns in a Southern city, the soundscapes in stations and airports, the applause of the public in a concert hall or the howling of football fans in a stadium - not to mention the former intriguing sound of the train whistles in the distance...

A particular variant of such real soundscapes are the creations of Bill Fontana in which the sounds are relocated, but not so drastically that it is no longer possible to see the visual sources of the sound. The sound remains connected with its visual source. Such a soundscape is ‘Acoustical Views of Kyoto’ (1990) where ‘urban, religious and natural' sounds are relocated to the top of a hill, from where one could see the places where the sound originates. Bill Fontana describes the experience as 'hearing as far as you can see'. A similar project is 'Acoustical visions of Venice' (2000): 'whenever a bell rang or ship blew its horn, one heard it first at the speed of light and then at the speed of sound'. Also in 'Sound Island', there was a second installation on the observation terrace of the monument inwhich 16 loudspeakers on the perimeter played live sounds from locations in Paris that were more or less visible.

This reminded me immediately of the marvellous passage in Nietzsche's ‘Morgenröthe’ where he describes how, amidst the raging of breakers on the rocks you can see the sailing ship silently glide over the waves, whereas amidst the howling of the wind in the rigging and the sails, the breakers seem to silently rage against the cliffs. Imagine Bill Fontana relocating the sound of the wind in the sails to the coast. Even Nietzsche's 'Schein' would then have disappeared from the world...

And this is to the point! For, although the world is transformed 'Acoustical Views of Kyoto’, no imaginary world emerges. No art is being made here, but a sensitory refined world, a world wherein the thunder would resound together with the lightning. A similar refined world, but then within one and the same sense, is obtained through the lighting of rooms when it is dark: that equally creates a new world, but a world that is real, just like the sound that Bill Fontana is relocating, albeit with the speed of electric signals..


And that brings us to a third kind of soundscape: next to the evocative and the real (natural or urban) soundscape, there is also the soundscape the sounds of which are deliberately produced, not to conjure up an imaginary world, but to mould the real world to human needs and tastes. With regard to soundscapes, we can refer to mist horns that have to signal sandbanks and cliffs when lighthouses are no longer visible. Or - to give somewhat less prosaic examples: the drums and trumpets in profane and religious processions, hunting horns, the ringing of bells over the city, peals of cannonade, the blowing of ship horns on New Year's eve, and what have you. We are not dealing with art here: although sounds are produced, like in music and evocative soundscapes, these sounds do not conjure up imaginary worlds, theythemselves are the world intended. We are dealing with aural or acoustic design - the audible counterpart of the architectural design of avenues, squares and buildings.

It is apparent from our examples that such acoustic design is not at all an invention of our age. Rather can we ask ourselves why acoustic design seems to stick so stubbornly to archaic technology. There are scarcely any new creations, and even these prefarably resort to antiquated technology: think of Györgi Ligeti's ‘Poème symphonique’ for 100 metronomes (1962) - a modest soundscape, confined within the walls of the concert hall. With far more powerful and far more diverse sources of sound than mist horns or train whistles, gigantic computer directed aural architectures could be conceived: the high-technological heirs to the bells ringing over medieval towns, the audible counterparts of the accompanying gothic cathedrals - this time built over vast cities, extended lakes, nocturnal deserts, in the mountains - and why not in the Grand Canyon! Would not that be great!

Let us give a survey in the following table:

art design
imaginary world real world
music aural mimesis aural reality aural design
soundscape 3


And we can equally ask ourselves why this elementary insight in the existence of four kinds of aural worlds - and three kinds of soundscape - has not penetrated the contemporary art world and the accompanying philosophy. Quite the contrary: everything seems to be messed up here...

That is already apparent from terms like 'musical sculpture' that Bill Fontana uses to designate his creations. No doubt, the introduction of a sound affects the surrounding environment no less that the erection of a sculpture. But the effect is rather different. And, when we overlook that difference, why not speak of 'sonic' sculptures: why compare the sound of waves and the sounds in a station with music? Otherwise, Bill Fontana often designates his creations more generally as 'acoustic art', which would no doubt be nearer the truth, were it not that he equally uses the term 'acoustic design' as if art and design - the creation of an imaginary world versus the transformation of the real world - should be one and the same thing. And he would justifiably remark that 'it is only very recently that the concept of sound design and soundscape have even existed', were it not for the fact that the soundscapes he creates do not belong to the third kind of designed soundscapes - to genuine 'acoustic design'.

Conversely, Bill Fontana's eagerness to inscribe himself in the tradition of music prevents him form assigning his work its real place in the history of art: creations like 'Sound Island' are rooted in the tradition of the 'object surréaliste' to which Bill Fontana contributes in making it cross-sensory and in increasing the scale. A description like ''a transparent overlay to visual space' only obscures such insight.

"Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot...One need not fear for the future of music.John Cage.

And it is here that the gesture with which we had John Cageintroduce our essay, reveals its historic truth - and the accompanying philosophies of art their historic untruth. For artists like Bill Fontana, John Cage's 4' 33'' have merely functioned as an alibi to, under the guise of revolutionising music, let music for what it is while proceeding to the development of another - and, apart from primitive forerunners: new - branch of art: aural mimesis.

Such false consciousness has its costs. It is not difficult to see that the development of the vast domain of aural mimesis would have fared better, had it had from the beginning been understood as the development on a higher level of the traditional techniques of producing sounds in the coulisses of the theatres, and not as a revolutionary stride in the development of music. And, had art and design not been hopelessly messed up, we surely would have witnessed the far more important development of a genuine high-tech aural design as described above.

Also music would have fared better. the development of an autonomous aural mimesis alongside music(al mimesis) would only have fostered the consciousness that, even when in both cases they have to be 'composed', ordinary sounds and noises have to be treated totally different then musical sounds (tones). And only the development of a genuine sonic design would, on top of that, have made it fully clear that there is a difference between imaginary musical space and real aural space (see 'Musical space'). We would have been spared countless halfway creations and we could have witnessed the creation of lots of full-blooded artworks - including all kinds of well-thought-out combinations...

Even when Bill Fontana is not a revolutionary of music, then, he is surely a pioneer in a domain with a promising future. And we can only advise the reader to get acquainted with his work on his website - where also the permanent installations are mentioned.

After all, it does not matter what one thinks or says, but what one does.

© Stefan Beyst, August 2004.


Classical Composers Database
Stefan Drees
Jenefer Harrison

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