Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient


Still from Clifford West’s 1965 film “Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture”

“Let’s say during the welding and after that time everything has been silent, no sounds were coming from anywhere, and when the welding has been completed then that framework which held the wire in place is removed, and for the first time I hear the sound which is almost hearing the cry of a newborn baby. You hear that voice for the first time and from there on in I begin to go through a period of acquaintance.” —Harry Bertoia

In 1960, Harry Bertoia started the exploration of tonal sculptures. The “tonal” (or sounding sculpture) is the art most often associated with the Italian-born American artist. These tonal sculptures come in many sizes, from a few inches all the way up to 20+ feet. Various metals were used for the rods, the most common being beryllium copper known for its wide ranging color variations. Some rods are capped with cylinders or drops of metal, which, by their weight, accentuate the swaying of the tonal rods. Harry and Oreste, his older brother, both loved music and spent endless happy hours experimenting and finding new sounds to incorporate into “Sonambient” (musique-concrète soundscapes), the auditory and visual environment created by the tonal sculptures.

Bertoia recalled how, as a child, he wished there was a musical instrument that anyone could play instantly. His father and brother were musically inclined and when the two played the accordion, Arieto (“little Harry” in Italian) can only tap his foot, not owning the same talent. Later when a group of Hungarian gypsies came through their village in northern Italy, they banged on pots and pans with a rhythmical beat. These vibrations left an impression deep inside young Arieto.

As an adult, Bertoia never stopped experimenting with, playing, and enjoying his art. The tall tonal wire pieces came about when he was bending a single heavy wire and it met another piece and made a wonderful sound. It provoked wonder as to what two or three or twenty rods might sound like. Thus began the adventure down the path of “Sonambient.” Bertoia never made the same piece twice, always seeking a different or richer sound with varying size rods.

In 1968-1969, Harry renovated his barn to house his special collection of 100+ tonal sculptures. The barn also serve as a sound hall and recording studio of sorts, where he gave small concerts to visitors and friends. He produced a series of 11 albums during his lifetime, all entitled “Sonambient,” of the music made by his art, the haunting sounds of his sculptures, manipulated by his hands along with the elements of nature. He was the subject of three major documentaries, among them a film by Clifford West, a colleague from Cranbrook. Bertoia died of lung cancer at the age of 63 in 1978. To this day, the Sonambient Barn has remained in its original condition, just as Bertoia had set it up, with the sound sculptures still intact and with his son Val now staging the concerts.

The featured series of video shorts present Harry Bertioa’s tonal sculptures, which are basically made of tall vertical rods on flat bases. However and wherever his creations are installed (open air or exhibition room), they welcome direct (touch) and peripheral (wind) stimuli to emit infinite ranges and timbres of soundscapes – from, say, chamber meditative to symphonic dissonance.

Video credits: “Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture – A documentary about Harry Bertoia” (1965) via VintageClipsAndMore; “Sonambient” (2007) via toner; “Harry Bertoia Sonambient Sculpture Barn Motion Study” (2015) via importantrecords; “Harry Bertoia: Untitled Sound Sculpture” via Richard Gleaves