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Metal and Wind: Bertoia and the Space of Reverie

 

Michael Filimowicz

 


Chicago, the corner of Randolph and Washington on a hot, Friday afternoon in June:

The Doppler tremolo of an ambulance siren dominates momentarily, pushing back the rumbling drone of traffic diffracted by the building faces. Intermittent strains of the saxophone player as he fades in and out behind each passing vehicle. The ogre-voice of the bus engine, neither a gurgle nor a growl, almost remaining mechanical. Always the thin piercing band of break pads worn too thin- like a never stopping whistle, or violin strings played too close to the bridge. The soft sounds- the quiet scuffling of shoe soles on the sidewalk, a shopping bag rustling against the leg (similar to the rustling of the lunch bag in the hand, or a bag of chips, or a newspaper), the jangling rhythm of keys in the pocket bouncing off the thigh. A collage of voices deprived of intentions, an assemblage of ages and genders and personalities revealed through pure vocality- sometimes even the words come through. The call and response of car horns like the notes rejected by a melody (a performance piece by Laurie Anderson comes to mind- "can your car hit C#?"). The woodpecker echo of jackhammers reverberating off the glass walls, on its way somewhere, perhaps. The hiss of air compressors. And a favorite source of sci-fi robo effects- the nightmarish scream of the pavement saw. These last sounds a refrain without verses- "the city is always under repair." But, most significantly for our purposes- the wind is felt and not heard.

One block away, same summer afternoon, at Washington and Stetson, in the shadow of the Amoco Building:

The acoustic details of the city have been reduced to a certain homogenous background hum. Less detail is perceived. Beeping- somewhere a truck is backing up. The machinegun prattle of pavement being split in Millennium Park. But there are new details here. The rustling of leaves and the white noise of water fountains, no less than four of them in the immediate vicinity. Finally, we notice in the tree shade as we're cooling off that we can hear the wind as it passes over our ears.

And, most strangely, we can hear the wind as rhythm as it is mediated, translated and materialized in Harry Bertoia's sound sculpture, sited at this place, a sculpture probably not named by him (as he never named them- this he left for others to do): Offering to the Wind.

 

photo: cory dalus. Click here to see the video of the sculpture

There is no escaping the sounds of the city, even when escaping the city. What we see in our Botanical Gardens in the north suburbs is subverted by the overwhelming fact of its location- the sound of the interstate highway which forms its western boundary. If you hike to the center of metropolitan Chicago's largest forest preserve- the 20,000 acres south of the Stevenson and west of LaGrange Road- where the birds cheep and the deer wander close- the most prominent features in the soundscape are the planes passing overhead to or from Midway Airport, and the freight train air horns along the I &M Canal. Canadian sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp begins her piece "Kits Beach Soundwalk" with the following narrative:

It's a calm morning. I'm on Kits Beach in Vancouver. It's slightly overcast, and very mild for January. It's absolutely wind still. The ocean is flat, just a bit rippled in places. Ducks are quietly floating on the water. I'm standing amongst some large rocks full of barnacles and sea weed. The water moves calmly through crevices. The barnacles put out their fingers to feed on the water. The tiny clicking sounds that you hear are the meeting of the water and the barnacles. It trickles and clicksss and sucksss and....The city is roaring around these tiny sounds. But it's not masking them. I can shock you or fool you by saying that the soundscape is this loud. [the volume is turned up] But it is more like this. The view is beautiful. In fact it is spectacular. So the sound level seems more like this- it doesn't seem that loud. [The volume is turned down] But I'm trying to listen to those tiny sounds in more detail now. Suddenly the background sound of the city seems louder again. It interferes with my listening. It occupies all acoustic space, and I can't hear the barnacles in all their tinyness. It seems too much effort to filter the city out. Luckily we have band-pass filters and equalizers. [The sound of the city is fading out] We can just go into the studio and get rid of the city. Pretend it's not there. Pretend we are somewhere far away.


Paradoxically, it is only within the sound-proofed walls of the sound studio, and through the mediation of sound equipment, that Nature outside the city can be experienced through listening. Our park spaces change only what we are looking at, but what we hear stays the same, or is the same only a little quieter, if a line of trees or an embankment intervenes. We have ozone action days, but no days for lessening the sound smog which permeates the city.

Though we have noted the use of the waterfall as a means of creating an alternative soundscape within the city, we should be clear that the construction of a place of urban reverie does not necessarily have to rely upon the production of sounds which might be classed as "Natural" over and against sounds of the "Artificial." We need only to think of such artificial soundscapes as are produced by the likes of amusement parks or the Rainforest Cafe in order to hear the limitations of this approach, insofar as it sharpens and reinforces these oppositions rather than negotiating them. As the psychologist James Hillman notes:

If God-given and man-made are an unnecessary, even false, opposition, then the city made by human hands is also natural in its own right. Surely, it is natural to human beings to make burial grounds, marketplaces, political and social communities, and to erect structures for worship, education, protection, and celebration as it is for them to gather nuts and berries, trap animals, or hoe the soil. Cities belong to human nature; nature does not begin outside the city walls. (1)


For Hillman, the natural solution for urban design is not to imitate the forms of nature but rather the processes of nature:

Urban beauty would not draw its standards from approximation to wild nature, requiring potted trees and vined interiors, noisy artificial waterfalls that impede the flow of natural conversation, and plastics that fake the look of leather and stone....What we now turn to nature for- inspiration in the face of might and majesty, wonder over intricacy, rhythms and detail- could as well appear in our constructions....We would imitate the process of nature rather than what the process has made, the way of nature rather than the things of nature, naturans rather than naturata as the philosophers say. The majestic, descending torrent of the Fort Worth Water Garden hasn't a single leaf, a single loose pebble: it is utterly unnatural- stone, cement, hidden piping plunked down into the usual downtown wasteland. Yet that construction completely overwhelms with the experience we expect from natural beauty- its wild adventure, its encompassing grandeur.(2)


In The Tuning of the World, Murray Schaefer offered a chart showing the number of sound pollution complaints and the sources of noise distress, from which we make the following selections:

TYPE OF NOISE

NUMBER OF TIMES MENTIONED (3)

Traffic (general)

115

Construction

61

Industry

40

Radios/Amplified Music

29

Bands/Discotheques

12

Power lawnmowers

7


Vehicular traffic leads the pack as public sound enemy number one. Interestingly, this may very well have been the case prior to the industrial revolution as well. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his essay "On Noise," authors perhaps the most eloquent invective against the thought-unraveling effects of city sounds:

The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment all my life long. There are people, it is true- nay, a great many people- who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence...On the other hand, noise is a torment to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all the great writers, or wherever their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul... (4)


Noise is the enemy to serious thought because it thwarts concentration, inhibits the gathering of thought:

Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought. Of course, where there is nothing to interrupt, noise will not be so particularly painful. (5)


In Schopenhauer's day, the most pernicious sound of the street was the cracking of the whip, and most of his essay is devoted to singling out the effects on his mind of this particular sound:

The most inexcusable and disgraceful of all noises is the cracking of whips- a truly infernal thing when it is done in the narrow resounding streets of a town....No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought. (6)


Offering to the Wind, as the Bertoia sound sculpture is now known, offers one possible solution to the problem of soundscape design for the city's places of leisure and reverie. The sculpture is set within a square and shallow reflecting pool, the bottom of which is laid out in a grid of red granite. The pool has been given an orientation identical with the grid-plan of the city's street, so that it's east and west sides run parallel to Randolph St., while it's north and south sides run parallel to Stetson. The sculpture itself consists of two series of long, vertical, cylindrical bronze rods spot-welded to a brass plate which is set just above the water level upon two long, rectangular stone pedestals. One series of rods run parallel alongside the south edge of the pool, rising to approximately ten feet, while the other series is offset from the former one, running parallel alongside the east edge of the pool, rising to approximately eight feet, the whole forming an "L" shape in plan. However, these two series of rods on their rectangular plates do not meet at the intersection of the right angle. Rather, there is a gap between them, a gap filled up by the water of the reflecting pool. The offset rectangles are reminiscent of the offset apartment buildings of Mies van der Rohe's 860 Lakeshore Drive buildings, and there is a touch of his high modernist play at the intersection of right angles in the decision to create two autonomous islands of sonorous rods. In each series there are approximately 120 rods. The gaps between the rods are of the same width as the rods themselves. Evident here is Bertoia's "life-long interest in the aesthetic effects created by identical forms repeated in varying positions in space," "the beauty of the repetitive line," and "the interplay of void and matter, the void being of equal value to the component material units."(7) The rods sound by being blown against each other by the wind, producing a texture of random micro-rhythms articulating a timbre reminiscent of clusters of metal rebar being lifted off the ground at a construction site.

There is yet one more element to the sculpture, a third and somewhat mysterious island. On a square, blackened steel base, and cattycorner from the water gap at the corner of the backwards "L," at the northwest corner of the pool, are two thick rods towering over the rest, rising to approximately sixteen feet like giant antennae hovering over the scene. At their tips they "blossom" into wide cylindrical shapes. These two rods are wind resisters- it would take a strong gust to knock these two against each other. Thus they are a silent and imposing counterpoint to the other rods sounding beneath them.

Bertoia's sound sculptures tend to exhibit a uniformity of geometry that is unlike his other work. Here we find essential modernist shapes- square, rectangle, grid, repetitious verticals. Indeed, if the sculpture did not sound, it would be utterly uninteresting as a form. It is as if, in Bertoia's sound sculptures, the frenzy of angles and ethereal qualities of floating mass found in his other structures have been displaced onto the acoustic-temporal plane.

The rhythm of the piece is fractal, not metrical. The pure regularity of the rods, analogous to pulse in music, is subverted by the chaos (in the scientific sense) of the pattern produced by the subtle and ever-changing action of the wind. The stronger the wind, the louder the tones and the more frequent the collisions of the rods. During a light wind, the sounds produced are quite faint. Even with a fair amount of wind the sounds still retain certain subtleties- there is always a "silence between the notes" to be heard, a gap between the collisions. The sculpture never attains the density and continuity of noise of the neighboring artificial waterfalls or the surrounding hum of traffic. It reminds us of non-urban spaces where intermittence and detail rather than constant hum is still the rule of the soundscape. As Schafer writes,

The Industrial Revolution introduced another effect into the soundscape: the flat line. When sounds are projected visually on a graphic level recorded, they may be analyzed in terms of what are called their envelope or signature....When the body of a sound is prolonged and unchanging, it is reproduced by the graphic level recorder as an extended, horizontal line.

Machines share this important feature, for they create low-information, high-redundancy sounds. They may be continuous drones...;they may be rough-edged...; or they may be punctuated with rhythmic concatenations...- but in all these cases it is the continuousness of the sound which is its predominating feature.

The flat continuous line in sound is an artificial construction. Like the flat line in space, it is rarely found in nature. (The continuous stridulation of certain insects like cicadas is an exception.) (8)


Thus the sculpture imitates, as Hillman might say, the process rather than the form of nature, producing sounds with discreet bodies. The sound source is decidedly artificial- Tobin bronze- but the manner of their production bears the relationship to Nature that we want to experience through the work. Furthermore, the bronze rods themselves exhibit a nice, irregular patina, emphasizing the elemental rawness of the piece, a rawness which enriches the modernist uniformity of the work. By placing the two series of rods in an "L" pattern, Bertoia is not merely siting the sculpture to be in conformity with the city grid, but also siting it in an advantageous manner to pick up the wind from whatever direction it might come. There might also be a pun at work, the "L" layout of the rods punning on the Chicago "el" trains constantly shuttling though the downtown streets.

It is worth mentioning that in one of his earliest sound sculptures, Bertoia created a fountain piece which was made up of rods of greatly varying lengths, and thus it was modeled somewhat on the idea of the wind chime, tuned usually to a Western diatonic, or quite often, the Chinese pentatonic, scale. Interestingly, Bertoia's later pieces abandon this approach, and what we find are sculptures with rods all of the same length. Thus certain aspirations to what might be called "the musical" are abandoned. The sounds produced by these later sculptures are instead subtle, rhythmic variations of the same pitch and timbre, analogous to the sounds of the rustling leaves which shade Offering to the Wind. As noted earlier, there are two heights to the series of rods, corresponding roughly to the harmonic ratio 5:4, or a major third, an "imperfect" interval. The intention here seems not so much concerned with musical theory as with creating a layer of difference and variety to the tones produced.


Offering to the Wind reminds us of the wind, the wind intensified and channeled by the rows of skyscrapers, to be sure, but also the wind that comes off the lake, the wind that fills up the sails and makes the parade of white triangles on the lake's plane of gauzy blue, and the wind that is the aerial counterpart and negative space of the prairie which has been paved over and hidden by the city- it generates the wind as acoustic image. The metal rods are not a wall blocking out the city but rather a comby screen filtering the city into discreet bands, reminding us not just of reeds and trees but also of the unseen torquing of the tall buildings, wind friction and tension. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard uses decidedly acoustic metaphors to describe the status of the poetic image:

Very often, then, it is the opposite of causality, that is, in reverberation...that I think we find the real measure of the poetic image. In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being. (9)

The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. (10)


Offering to the Wind is such a reverberant image. It reverses a certain urban deafness, returning the possibility of silences between sounds, producing a quietude in the midst of the city roar. It turns the ears inside out, from ears that repress background noise to ears that tune in and focus, ears that can attain a certain harmony with the thoughts occurring between them.


(1) Hillman, James. 1991. A Blue Fire, Harper Perennial, 102-103.
(2) Hillman 103.
(3) Schafer, R. Murray. 1977. The Tuning of the World, Random House Press Inc., 186.
(4) Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1964. "On Noise," in Great Essays, ed. Houston Peterson, Washington Square Press, 157.
(5) Schopenhauer 158.
(6) Schopenhauer 158.
(7) Nelson, June Kompass. 1970. Harry Bertoia: Sculptor, Wayne State University Press. 40-43.
(8) Schafer 78.
(9) Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, p.xvi.
(10) Bachelard xxii.

CD:
Westerkamp, Hildegaard. "Kits Beach Soundwalk." On the album FOUR EXCEPTIONAL WOMEN, CDe Xpress #1.

 

 

Michael Filimowicz is a new media artist working in the areas of sound, experimental video, creative writing, net art, public art and digital photography. As a writer he has published poetry, fiction and philosophy, and as a sound designer he has mixed soundtracks for film and television. Recently, as part of a team of new media artists in Vancouver, he was awarded a Cultural Canada of Canada Public Art Commission for the City of Surrey, British Columbia. He is an American Midwest transplant currently living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is on the faculty in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University.

 

 

 

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