Bill Fontana: Hear, Now
Bill Fontana finds musical potential in everything.
Bill Fontana is a pioneering composer whose signature sound sculptures incorporate ambient and often-ignored everyday sounds into aural landscapes.
Born in 1947 in Cleveland, OH, Fontana studied music at the New School with influential composer John Cage. In the 1970s, he was hired by the Australian Broadcasting Company. He used the company’s professional audio equipment to record urban and natural sounds, building a sound installation that was exhibited by the National Gallery of Victoria. His work has since been presented at numerous museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum in New York, Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Tate Modern in London.
Fontana’s site-specific projects often include recordings made at bridges and buildings with historic significance, including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Arc de Triomphe, Trafalgar Square, and the Ponte 25 de Abril in Lisbon, Portugal. In the 1980s, his four-minute environmental soundscapes were broadcast daily on NPR stations around the United States.
The sounds that we take for granted are exactly the ones that Bill Fontana wants us to hear, and to hear as music. It’s never hidden, never far away waiting only for somebody like him to turn up the volume and change the way you perceive your environment, maybe forever. But the job of this manipulator of sounds is difficult to define.
AJC: Are you a sculptor or a composer?
Bill Fontana: A little of both because I regard sound as a physical material.
AJC: Received wisdom would be that there’s a hierarchy of how we regard, I’ll call it oral information. Up here is composed, harmonic, melodic, traditional music. Below that is all kinds of other music. And below that is sound, in other words what my voice is making right now. And below that is?
AJC: What is general regarded as the pollutant of the world, noise. That hierarchy doesn’t really exist for you, correct?
Fontana: No, well actually, I think I’ve sort of turned that hierarchy upside down because when I started out as a composition student in the Cleveland Institute of Music and I started paying attention to just the ambient sounds in the space I was in. And what I discovered about myself is that if I really focused intently on the ambient sounds it was a way of making music. It was a way of finding patterns and relationships in sound. And I increasingly became really fascinated by this. Putting noise at the bottom of that, to me, is the opposite of how I think about it. I’d kind of put it on the top rather than the bottom because to me music is a state of mind. It’s way of perceiving the world. And I’ve spent 50 years exploring what that means.
Fontana’s Landscape Sculpture With Fog Horns redefines the everyday sounds around San Francisco Bay. Using microphones in eight positions, fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge are heard from various acoustical vantage points at the same time.
Fontana: People really learn not to hear those sounds, or to pay attention to them. And if you look at young people walking around with headphones on just listening to the musical bubble as they walk down the street. The idea of just hearing the sounds you live with on an every day basis is foreign to a lot of people.
AJC: It’s very interesting. As we’ve sat here I’ve become more and more aware of the ambient sounds, and I’m sure you probably live your life through this. Can you hear everything that’s going on around us now because it’s quite remarkable the variety of sounds that are occurring.
Fontana: It’s a question of choice. I feel like I’ve developed the ability to find something interesting with almost any sound I’m exposed to. But I would also use a tool that structural engineers use called an accelerometer. It’s a vibration sensor. Those sensors to me are like space ships. They take me into another dimension of reality and how vibration inhabits the material world that I see. I’m really interested in that. And I’ve done all these experiments with how certain apparently animate objects can react to sound.
Many of Fontana’s pieces involve bridges with iconic or historic significance. Whether people are on them are under them, bridges are funnels and crossroads for passing humanity and the sound that they make. One of his big successes was sound from the iconic 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon Portugal.
Fontana: I did this exhibition where I installed a live array of microphones and sound sensors on this bridge and transmitted it into this immense space in this museum. I was able to create a sound installation with 32 loud speakers and I took the live audio from the bridge and created this immersive swirling sound piece that had created a kind of musical universe out of sounds from that bridge that people had learned not to hear.
Every so often though the public reacts badly. If you don’t like visual art you can turn away but there’s something about a public sound insulation that’s less avoidable. The public reaction to Fontana’s work can also be ecstatic.
Fontana: I saw this in Lisbon where people who would come and spend a long period of time there laying on these cushions gazing up at these images but surrounded by these sounds. It really kind of made them happy because that bridge is a very symbolic bridge. It’s a symbol of their revolution. The bridge used to be called the Salazar Bridge and was renamed the 25th of April Bridge which was the date of when they overthrew a dictator.
Many ideas by the 71 year-old Fontana can be traced directly to John Cage’s 1952 piece 4’33” four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. If maximum sound can be music so too can maximum silence or whatever sounds happen to be in the air. With such an open-ended approach Fontana’s pieces have an it is what it is quality. When he was asked to create a piece on the parish church of St. Kolumba destroyed in Cologne during World War II he found pigeons and he didn’t chase them away. Now the church’s ruins are enclosed in a newly built museum but on the loud speakers thanks to Fontana the long-time resident pigeons are still there. Music is supposedly a universal language but Bill Fontana’s brand of song is so open ended that it’s more like a mirror for those who experience it.
AJC: What happens when you hear a Beethoven symphony or a Bob Dylan song?
Fontana: I think the Bob Dylan song, the Beethoven symphony, all those things are really, really spectacular examples of music. And I don’t wish to exclude those but I don’t want to use those as a criterion for excluding other sounds.