Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything). This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.
This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA. The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns. The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.
Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world. He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland. The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing. He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc. His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.
The first presentation was perhaps the most striking. Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording. He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this). He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing. When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished. What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.
Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.
One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason. The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way. This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.
Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places. What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually. The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.
There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers. But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition. Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.
It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world. Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination. All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.