Harry Bertoia’s Metallic Wonderland March 3, 1980

Harry Bertoia. Bally, Pennsylvania. It had been on my mind ever since I saw photographs of Bertoia’s work in John Grayson’s Sound Sculpture. But Bally, Pennsylvania isn’t a place a New Yorker is likely to pass by, unless one just happens to be en route to Harrisburg or Lancaster, and I didn’t manage to get there until early this month. I was a little late. Bertoia, I learned, had died almost a year and a half earlier.

But all was not lost. Bertoia’s studio on Main Street is still maintained by his son Val, who continues to turn out some work in his father’s style, while also working on his own projects. A hundred or so of Bertoia’s creations still stand in the barn behind his 18th-century house just up the road a ways. And his wife and son were quite happy to show me the remarkable instruments and tell me a little about the man who made them. The evening ended with an informal concert in the barn, which convinced me that Bertoia had left behind him a remarkable musical legacy. This is ironic, because the artist never considered himself a musician, and he remains almost unknown in the music world.

Officially, Bertoia was a sculptor. Born in Italy, he first settled in Detroit where he studied, and later taught, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. In the ’50s he left academe and, for a time, earned a living designing chairs. Gradually he began to support himself as a metal sculptor. With the endorsement of Saarinen and other architects, he received numerous commissions to create work for buildings, such as the Standard Oil building in Chicago, and his work was shown frequently at the Staempfli in New York and in several galleries elsewhere. At some point along the line, however, he began to be less interested in how his work looked and more interested in how it sounded. He referred to all of his later pieces as ‘sonambients,’ and while they are attractive to look at, they are really about sound. Bertoia never became interested in giving concerts, never tried to write scores for his sonambients, and never attempted to organize an ensemble to play them. Yet he must have spent thousands of hours out there in his barn, just tinkering and listening, and he frequently presented demonstrations there for various school groups and other visitors who wanted to see and hear his work. Fortunately, he also spent quite a few hours making about 10 LPs, which he issued privately. The records are adequate reproductions of Bertoia’s metallic sound vocabulary, and the big amorphous textures he liked to create, but they don’t entirely capture the atmosphere of the live presentation I heard in the artist’s barn that night.

Mrs. Bertoia began by lighting a few candles and turning out the lights, adding a soft glow to the clean wooden space. Then she walked casually over to a row of the smaller sculptures, consisting of clusters of thin rods welded to a base. With light touches she set them in motion, and the flexible rods began rustling against one another, producing thousands of tiny metallic attacks. Curiously, through some phenomenon I can’t explain, the objects produced soft low-pitched hums at the same time.

As Mrs. Bertoia moved around the barn, setting dozens of sonambients of all sizes into motion, a rich blend of gorgeous metallic rustling began to accumulate in our ears. In most cases the instruments produce not single pitches but rather a number of prominent and not-so-prominent pitches. One is always more aware of the texture and color of the sound than of any particular pitches or harmonies, but sometimes one notices rhythms as well. This is particularly true in cases where rather heavy cylinders are attached to the ends of the rods, making individual attacks more pronounced. With most of the sonambients, a stroke of the hand will set them in motion for a good 20 seconds, but in some cases the sound fades out quite curiously and sporadically. Just when it seems that the instrument has stopped sounding, the laws of nature are quite likely to bring two of the rods into contact with one another again.

This same principle is true of several pairs of metal pieces that hang from the ceiling of the barn. Perhaps these are not really instruments. They certainly do not represent the careful craftsmanship that can be seen in the clusters of neatly aligned rods. But they make beautiful music. When set into motion these pieces clang pleasantly against one another for a while until they begin swinging in phase and do not come into contact with one another any longer. But later, sometimes much later, they are likely to swing out of sync and produce a few more clangs.

About half way through the performance, which probably didn’t last more than 10 minutes but which was more substantial than many two hour concerts I have heard, Mrs. Bertoia took up a soft beater and began rolling on a large circular gong at the back of the room. The gong did not impress me as much as the other instruments, but that was probably because I wanted to hear the rich overtones and long decay time I am accustomed to hearing in symphonic gongs and Asian gongs. Bertoia’s gongs, which he hammered out in his own shop, have a deeper and more direct quality and are not intended to do what other gongs do.

As Mrs. Bertoia continued making her way around the barn, stimulating several more rows of sonambients, the sound became increasingly rich. I began to realize that the barn itself was vibrating, and that the cellar underneath was providing some of the resonance. It was as though the barn itself was the real instrument.

As the short concert was coming to an end, it took a long time for the hundred instruments to make their way back to silence. But as they did I found myself making a comment that I have seldom made anywhere. ‘I have the feeling,’ I remarked, ‘that I am in a very sacred place.’ Mrs. Bertoia did not seem surprised. ‘Harry always said that the barn was his church,’ she replied.

The artist is buried there, behind the barn, 1980/a-new-york-gamelan to one of his favorite gongs.