Words by Diana McClure / Photographs by Anders Jones
Shimmering soundscapes, otherworldly earth tones and interactive instrumentation embrace visitors to the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition, Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound.
Words on the granite headstone that mark Bertoia’s grave (1915-1978) poetically summarize the artist, designer and sculptor’s creative gift, “He heard the voice of the wind. Bringing sound from form to life.”
A pioneer in the field of sound art, Bertoia’s seminal work Sonambient was a collection of ninety-one sounding sculptures installed in Bertoia’s stone barn in Pennsylvania. Refined over two decades, the artworks explored the intersection of sound and sculpture and were built from groupings of metal rods designed to create an array of radiant tones, harmonics, and vibrations when held or strummed.
The particular musicality of Bertoia’s sounding sculptures lent itself to deep listening, explorations of the healing potential of tonality, and a strong resonance with nature and the cosmos. Bertoia occasionally held listening sessions in his barn for groups of no more that twelve. The barn also functioned as a recording studio for his experiments in sound, which culminated in the production of eleven LPs on the Sonambient label.
The LPs were recently re-released along with previously unheard material on John Brien’s Important Records’ label. A re-mix of the music by Brien, Sonambient Museum Mix, 2016, is part of a continuous algorithm four channel sound installation at the exhibition.
For audiophiles interested in optimal sound staging, the installation room features speakers in all four corners of the space. The speakers, housed in wood diamond cut cabinets, are a nice compliment to the legendary mid-century Bertoia Diamond Chair seating available for visitors. The chairs were designed by Bertoia in 1952 for Knoll, and allowed him to generate enough income through royalties to fully engage his art practice.
Other than listening, the opportunity exists to play sounding sculptures and experience a brief sensation of what it might have been like to attend one of Bertoia’s barn sessions. An interactive installation created by Bertoia’s son, Val Bertoia, showcases approximately ten of his elegantly minimalist metal creations.
Museum guests are encouraged to hold the long slender rods, gently push them together, and then release them into a sustained swaying rhythm that resembles a field of wildflowers in the breeze or flowing sea grass. Other instruments include Bertoia’s famous Gongs, and a low-lying sculpture meant to be strummed with one finger.
The musical experience at Atmosphere for Enjoyment is complimented by gorgeous monotype prints, most on rice paper, in earth tones including maize, forest green, red earth and black. The delicate and precise drawings articulate what fundamental tones disseminating as vibrations might look like. Design notes, as well as a survey of Bertoia’s lesser known work as a jewelry designer are also on view, offering a truly sublime feast of the senses for all who choose to look, touch and listen.