Bill Fontana



I began my artistic career as a composer. What really began to interest me was not so much the music that I could write, but the states of mind I would experience when I felt musical enough to compose. In those moments, when I became musical, all the sounds around me also became musical.

This kind of subjective musical transformation of wherever I happened to be was fascinating. The investigation and isolation of these experiences became my obsession. I began to carry a tape recorder wherever I went (the most interesting tape recorder at this time as a miniature Nagra), so that when the ambient sounds became musical, I could make a recording of them.

As these recordings accumulated, I began to wonder what it meant. Should I make concerts out of these recordings? Should I use these recordings as raw material with which to create studio compositions out of sound?

I began to regard recording a sound as an act in mental intensity equal to writing music, with some of these recordings having the real possibility of being accepted by me as a composition. But who would believe this?, composing by listening? For these sound recordings to be as aesthetically meaningful as musical compositions required some radical solutions, but I did not as yet know what these were to be.

My search for these aesthetic solutions continued as I went to live in Australia in the early 1970's. I had an amazing job working for the Australian Broadcasting corporation to record what Australia sounded like from 1974 to 1978. This gave me the chance to listen, dream and record with unlimited technical resources for the first time in my life.

Two recording experiences of this period had a seminal influence on my work. One was a recording I made in a tropical rain forest during a total eclipse of the sun (in 1976), and the other was an 8 channel field recording of wave patterns happening beneath a floating concrete pier.

The total eclipse recording documented a unique moment that was a once in a lifetime experience in this environment (the next occurrence at this location will be 25 November, 2030 - a span of 54 years) . During the minutes just before the moment of totality (having a duration of 2 minutes), the acoustic protocol between birds, determining who sang at the different times of day became mixed up. All available species were singing at the same time during the minutes immediately proceeding totality, as the normal temporal clues given by light were obliterated by a rainforest suddenly filled with sparkling shadows. When totality suddenly brought total darkness, there was a deep silence.

This recording was seminal for my work because a total eclipse is always conceived of as being a visual experience, and such a compelling sonic result was indicative of how ignored the acoustic sensibility is in our normal experience of the world. From this moment on, my artistic mission consciously became the transformation and deconstruction of the visual with the aural.

This led me to not only become interested in the musicality and compositional wholeness of environmental sound, so that the act of listening and its extension through sound recording equaled music; but that the visual space that was sounding equaled sculpture and architecture.

At this moment, I became interested in Duchamp, and a passage from "the bride stripped bare by her bachelors even", which led me to call my art form sound sculpture:

Musical Sculpture
lasting and
Sounds leaving from

different places and
a sculpture which lasts.


My 1976 recording of Kirribilli Wharf (on Sydney harbor) was the first time I attempted to apply sculptural thinking to the recordable listening process by making an 8 channel field recording.

Kirribilli Wharf was a floating concrete pier that was in a perpetual state of automatic self performance. There were rows of small cylindrical holes going between the floor and underside to the sea below. They sounded with the percussive tones of compression waves as the holes were momentarily closed by the waves. This 8 channel recording consisted of placing microphones over the openings of eight such holes, making a real time sound map of the wave action in the sea below the pier. It was later installed as a gallery installation played from 8 loudspeakers in a space.

This recording was seminal for my work because it was first time that a conceptual analysis of a natural musical process resulted in a live recording that was as genuinely musical as music; and because of the spatial complexity of 8 channels answering each other from 8 points in space, it also became genuinely sculptural .

It was also sculptural in another important way, the percussive wave action at Kirribilli Wharf had continuousness and permanence about it. This 8 channel tape was not a recording of a unique moment, as with the total eclipse, but was an excerpt from a sound process that is perpetual. Twelve years after this recording was made, I returned to Kiribilli Wharf and placed microphones there which transmitted live sound to the Art Gallery of New south sales in sydney, as part of a sound sculpture.


The most elemental characteristic of any sound is duration.

Sounds that repeat, that are continuous and that have long duration defy the natural acoustic mortality of becoming silent..

In the ongoing sculptural definition of my work I have used different strategies to overcome the ephemeral qualities of sound, that seem to be in marked contrast to the sense of physical certainty and permanence that normally belong to sculpture and architecture.

One of the most useful methods has been to create installations that connect two separate physical environments through the medium of permanent listening. Microphones installed in one location transmit their resulting sound continuums to another location, where they can be permanently heard as a transparent overlay to visual space.

As these acoustic overlays create the illusion of permanence, they start to interact with the temporal aspects of the visual space. This will suspend the known identity of the site by animating it with evocations of past identities playing on the acoustic memory of the site, or by deconstructing the visual identity of the site by infusing it with a totally new acoustic identity that is strong enough to compete with its visual identity.




"Pigeon Soundings" and "Perpetual Motion" are two sound sculptures which will be permanently installed in the new Diözesanmuseum to be built on the site of St. Kolumba.

Since the end of World War II, the church of St. kolumba has been a ruin, inhabited by thousands of pigeons. "Pigeon Soundings" is an 8 channel sound map of the acoustic life and movements of these pigeons in St. Kolumba; where they nest along the top of the west wall, and fly back and forth across a large rectangular open gap, to the top of a parallel roof surface, that diagonally slants downward across the remainder of the ruin.

This sound map is an 8 channel real time recording of the movements and voices of pigeons in the ruin. Eight microphones were mounted in two parallel groups of four that were placed along the two sides of the rectangular space. The resulting recordings mapped out the movements and overlapping sound fields of the pigeons behavior and flights within the space.

In the future, when the new museum is built, it will no longer be a nesting site for pigeons. These 8 channel recordings will be played from a sculptural installation of 8 loudspeakers that are placed in the same spatial positions as the microphones, becoming an acoustic evocation of this 50 year period in between being a functioning church and a museum for the next century.

This ruin being taken over by pigeons may at first give the impression of decay and death. It is certainly nature's way of reclaiming what had gone out human control. In this 50 year span of pigeons sounding in the ruin, many timeless generations of pigeons came and went. In this passage of nameless birds, the space was returned to a pure state of timelessness, where all of its soundings were supposed to be unheard. These pigeon soundings became the space dreaming to itself, returning to a primal state that lay in the realm of new beginnings.

This almost magical sense of a space returning to its essence through by sounding to itself in an acoustical dream, is much more than a poetic illusion in the yet to be realized permanent sound sculpture called "Perpetual Motion",

This sound sculpture will use the four old bells in the collection of the Diozezesanmuseum Köln as living ears to the present and future acoustical life of the city of Cologne. In a permanent sculptural installation, they would be mounted on the roof of the future Kolumba Museum. Sensitive microphones and accelerometers would be placed inside of each bell to hear the resonant frequencies of the bells as they are excited by the ambient sounds of Köln. At a site to be determined in the future Kolumba Museum, a sculptural installation of loudspeakers would continuously play the live sounds of the bell resonances.

Two types of vibrational phenomena will take place in these bells. Resonant frequencies within the air cavities of each bell will be exicited by ambient sound. This air cavity will also act as a filter, redefining the harmonic shape of the urban ambiance according to the physical structure of each bell. The metal structure of the bells will also produce minute vibrations that can be heard by accelerometers that are attached to the metal surfaces of the bell. These vibrations within the bell metal are very musical, and are metallic echoes and pitch transformations of the original sounds. The simultaneous hearing of the air cavity with an acoustic mirophone, and the metal vibrations with the accelerometer will reveal a magical acoustical world within the timeless silence of these old bells.


The environmental sounds that are the most impressive to record, posses a natural timelessness. The breaking waves of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Niagara Falls, the Rhine Falls, are all sounds that have happened continuously for millions of years. When I record them, I am struck by this fact. Making a recording that is even the length of a 2 hour DAT tape is a trivial excerpt from a sound with no apparent beginning or end, as close as we can come to experiencing infinity in the acoustic realm.

"Sound Island" (Paris, 1994) and "Vertical Rhine Soundings" (proposed for the 750 anniversary of the Kölner DOM) are two concepts for sound sculptures which treat a famous architecutural structure as an icon to be transformed by an acoustic overlay . This use of sound creates a poetic deconstruction of the known identity of the site, creating an illusion that the architectural icon is dreaming out loud, making public what could only be imagined as sounding to ifself.

Both of these projects use the sounds of perpetual moving water to achieve this acoustic overlay, the sound of the sea in Normandy and the Rhine Falls.

"Sound Island" was installed at the Arc de Triomphe, in which the live sound of the sea from Normandy was broadcast to 48 loudspeakers hidden on the facade of the monument, creating the illusion that the cars circling the place de l'Etoile were silent. The Arc de Triomphe is an island at the center of an immense traffic circle. It is an urban architectural island not because it is surrounded by water, but by a sea of cars. The constant flow of hundreds of encircling cars are the dominant visual and aural experience one has when standing under the towering monument, looking out at Paris. This sound sculpture explored the transformation of the visual and aural experience of traffic. Live natural white sounds of the sea from the Normandy coast were transmitted to loudspeakers installed on the facade of the monument. The presence of the breaking and crashing waves created the illusion that the cars were silent. This was accomplished in contradiction to the visual aspects of the situation. The sound of the sea is natural white sound, and has the psycho-acoustic ability to mask other sounds, not by virtue of being louder, but because of the sheer harmonic complexity of the sea sound.

"Vertical Rhine Soundings" is as yet an unrealized dream. It is proposed for the 750th anniversary of the Cologne Cathedral and would involve placing a sound system on many different levels of the Cathedral , so that this great architectural structure becomes an acousitic icon . This will not transform the architecture as much as it will use the architecutre to transform the urban landscape of Cologne, temporarily turning it into a soundscape of sounding water floating over the city as audible dream.

The sonic heart of this project will be the complex musicality created by the simultaneous wave patterns that spontaneously occur along the entire length of the Rhine from Switzerland to the North Sea. This 1320 km long journey of the river is a continuous descent from the high elevations of the Alps to sea level in Rotterdam. The Rhine has many different rates of flow and topographical features that make it one of the most varied rivers in the world.

This sound sculpture will use a complex underwater listening system to hear the wave patterns in many different situations and simultaneously transmit these sounds (from 24 to 48 locations) to a large sculptural installation of loudspeakers hidden on the entire facade of the Cologne Cathedral. These sensuous underwater soundings will engulf, descend and flow over the great vertical structure.