epiphanies (re: harry bertoia)

the wire magazine, #196, june, UK, 2000

Everybody’s path to Harry Bertoia is different. Some discover the designer: his work with Charles Eames and his famous wire chairs for Knoll. Some discover the visual artist: one of the pioneers of the monotype, and probably the earliest abstract american artist to dedicate the majority of his ‘drawing’ output to this medium. Then there is the sculptor, and here the path splits in two: the ‘static’ works – beautiful webs and bushes of bronze – and the sounding pieces – ‘tonals’, gongs and others that must be seen, touched and especially heard. There is even the path of the record geek: Harry released a series of LPs in the 1970s – recordings of himself playing the sculptures, with beautiful covers, on his own Sonambient label.

 As with most of the artists I hold dear to my heart, my own path involved moving across various stepping stones and making my own connections. In 1993, when I found a PSF CD with a great picture of Harry standing beside a small sculpture on the cover, i only knew the chairs, and i couldn’t even begin to think that this Harry was the guy who designed the bird chair. I had no idea what the CD was, but I bought it because harry looked so cool on the cover. When I got home, I couldn’t believe the beautiful, mysterious world of sound. I was mesmerized.

 Desperate for any information, I asked someone to translate the Japanese liner notes; but there were no facts – and the notes ended up being an imaginary conversation between the writer and the soundmaker… and looking back on it now, I know that anyone who has been touched by Harry’s work has had similar conversations with his spirit – as the work tends to move you that much.

 A few weeks later I was looking through an old Knoll furniture catalog, and there it was: a picture of Harry standing next to a bird chair and some of the sculptures. I couldn’t believe it: the guy who did the chair also did the music! What kind of a person designed modernist furniture and made experimental music? The complete picture was wonderfully fuzzy and it seemed that Harry Bertoia was an absolute original.

 For years, every time I walked past the diamond chair in our living room, I ran my fingers along its wire surface simply because I liked the sound of it. After I discovered Harry’s sound world, I began to wonder if he had ever played one of his chairs? I wanted all of his worlds to form a complete circle, so I recorded a piece for him using the diamond chair as a sound source, and ultimately as a sound sculpture.

 Earlier this year, while on a trip to NYC, I took a detour for the rare opportunity to see two shows of Bertoia’s work. My first stop was a show of monotypes at the Allentown Museum in Pennsylvania. I arrived at the museum and could barely believe my eyes. Near the entrance – standing in majestic, silent beauty – was an incredible, large double gong. I wanted to ‘tap’ it, but it was clear that this piece was sadly ‘for display purposes only’.

 The museum contained a number of intimate galleries, and one simply glowed with monotypes. Bertoia always considered these his most personal work (he, supposedly, rarely agreed to sell them), and all of these came from his estate. The range of works covered most of his career, and showed how deep his explorations of the medium went. I was struck by how the swirling movements, repetitions and evidence of his hands reflected the movements of the later sound sculptures: the feeling of metal gently resonating just after it has been touched.

 Back at my hotel, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sculpture in front of the museum, so, the next morning,  I woke up at 6 a.m. armed with a small tape recorder, that i’d purchased at a local radio shack the night before. I drove to the museum, climbed the wall and tapped the larger gong ever so lightly. Instantly, the tone began moving through the silent morning air and into my body. As it slowly began to fade, I moved my ear closer until it was pressed up against the cold bronze surface; and suddenly, I was lost in a dreamland of drone. It seemed as though the sound would resonate within my own inner ear, forever.

 The next morning, I arrived at the Robert Miller Gallery in NYC for a show of Harry’s sound sculpture. I arrived early, and by some miracle, had the whole exhibition to myself. It was incredible: a number of different shaped tonals, a long hollow rectangular gong, four shaped flat gongs and some smaller pieces. I walked around in a quiet daze, bowled over by the visual beauty while gathering the courage to ask the woman at the desk the big question: could I touch? She barely looked up at me, but with a sly smile, handed me a mallet!

 I turned on the recorder in my jacket pocket, grabbed hold of a cluster of tonal stems and let them go – and the reverberant gallery space came alive. As I stood there listening, watching the arms of the sculpture gently sway, I somehow connected these works to something I had recently read by the Japanese composer Takemitsu:

 The sounds of such instruments are produced spontaneously. . . they seem to resonate through the performer, and then merge with nature to manifest themselves more as a presence than an existence. In the process of their creation, theoretical thinking is destroyed. . . between this complex sound – and that point of intense silence preceding it, called ‘ma’, there is a metaphysical continuity that defies analysis. . . This ma and sound do not exist as a technically definable relationship. It is here that sound and silence confront each other. . . In a relationship beyond any objective measurement.

 I stood watching this one sculpture move, now very slowly. It had stopped making sound, but its tendrils continued to sway. I thought about something Harry had written regarding how the sound of the sculpture completes its form. now, in the physical presence of these works, this was certainly true – for as soundless objects or simply sound, they were half-works – only completed by human activation (although of course, they are beautiful when still) .

 As I moved around blissfully tapping and scraping the entire show, people wandered in and out. Some joined in, others were oblivious; and somewhere amongst the sounds Harry’s presence was definitely felt.