More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


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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.

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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.

Recurrence: New Icelandic Orchestral Music


“Well I’ve never been to Iceland, but I really like the music.”  Please excuse the Hoyt Axton paraphrase but this music brings joy to this listener’s heart.

Wow!  Even as a writer with an avowed fondness for music from the Nordic regions I am pleased to say that I am just stunned at this recording.  This is all new music written in the last few years by Icelandic composers and performed by the Iceland Symphony which seems well prepared to handle these large works.

These seven tracks document five works by living composers and, I dare say, rising stars in the classical orchestral realm as well.  Only one of these composers is likely to ring a bell in all but a few listeners and that is Anna Thorvaldsdottir, probably the best known musician from Iceland since Björk.  And it is worth noting that three of the five works are by female composers.

There is a consistency in the large orchestral sounds from these composers that provide a unity for the listener and a challenge for the recording engineers.  In fact this is ideal to show off the sonic facility of the Sono Luminus label and the skills of producer Dan Merceruio and recording engineer Daniel Shores.  This is the sort of album that stereo salons use to show off the range of their amps and speakers.  It is indeed thrilling to hear and the better your sound system, the more exciting this will be.  Those blessed with Blue Ray Audio capability will doubtless get the best sound of all.  Both standard CD and Blue Ray Audio discs are included in this package.

In order of appearance the composers are: Thurídur Jónsdóttir (1967- ), Hlynur Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (1980- ), Daniel Bjarnason (1979- ), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Bjarnason is also the very capable conductor of the Iceland Symphony in this recording.

The music, Flow and Fusion, bd, Aequora, Emergence (three movements), and Dreaming are not given composition dates but are presumably recent compositions by these young artists.  There are liner notes which are useful to the listener but the main point here seems to be the glorious sound.  One hears influence and/or homage to some of the great sonic experimenters of the late 1950s and 60s like Penderecki, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and probably some Icelandic composers whose works have yet to be heard outside of Iceland.

The album has the notation below the title of “ISO Project 1” so here’s hoping that there will be at least a second volume and that we be given the opportunity to hear more from the rich musical landscape of Iceland.  Bravo!  Brava!  Keep it coming.

 

Nordic Affect: Raindamage, Wonderful Music from Iceland


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Definitely an unusual beginning to this sonorous album of chamber music from the happy, creative place called Iceland.  Some of these tracks are electroacoustic combining some sort of electronic sound producing and/or manipulating components along with the live musical performance.

Nothing familiar here but a lot worth listening to.  This is a collection of recent chamber music from what is apparently some of the finest composers working in Iceland today. And as a Sono Luminus product it is a sound object of the highest order.  It is a beautifully recorded set of pieces that goes a long way to demonstrate the high quality and creativity of both the compositional and performance to be found in this distant corner of the world.

There are six works represented here.  Three are exclusively electronic, one for acoustic instruments with electronics and two are for acoustic instruments alone.  All seem to share the eclecticism of modern composers and, to this writer’s ear, a rather distinct style which seems to come out of the Nordic regions these days.

Iceland has a long and proud musical history and has amassed a large creative classical repertoire in (at least) the 20th and 21st centuries.  Perhaps one can hear the “sounds of the north” in these works or perhaps that is simply the analogous associations of this listener’s mind but there does seem to be some affinity between the lovely cover photograph of melting ice and some of the sounds herein.

At any rate this is fascinating music beautifully performed by Nordic Affect, a more or less fixed ensemble of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord with occasional electronic supplementation.  Performers include Halla Steinun Stefásdóttir, Violin; Guòrún Hrund Haróardóttir, Viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, Cello; Guòrún Óskarsdóttir, Harpsichord with Nava Dunkelman on drum in the last track.

The composers Úlfur Hansson, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson are completely unknown to this writer though it is noted that Hansson studied at Mills College in California, itself quite a hotbed of new music innovation.  No matter, though, these are some amazing composers doing cutting edge work and deserve your attention.

All in all this is one fine disc of chamber music.