Collage for Sound Island, Paris, 1994 (private collection)


General Statement


Bill Fontana is an American artist internationally known for his experimental work in sound. He shares with the small group of artists who work in the medium an interest in transforming the aural environment. He is unique, however, in employing exclusively ambient, rather than electronic, sound . Fontana regards the physical environment as a living source of musical information, with aesthetic and evocative qualities that can conjure up visual imagery.



Since 1976, Fontana has created site-specific sound installations in major cities from San Francisco to Kyoto in which he relocates ambient sound, from one location, most often away from the city, to a central public, urban space. This has the effect of sharpening the perception of the aural landscape as what is heard is not actually visible. Fontana, however, exploits sound's capacity to elicit visual imagery through memory and knowledge, even as he creates a tension caused by the disjunction of what is heard and what is seen.

A good example of Fontana's procedure is Sound Island, a major work created for the city of Paris in 1994. Using a combination of microphones and underwater hydrophones, Fontana transmitted live the natural white noise of the sea off a rugged cliff on France's Normandy coast to hidden loudspeakers on the facade of the Arc de Triomphe. The sound of waves crashing against rocks and the cry of seagulls masked the loud traffic noise of the immense roadway around the monument and provided a new and unexpected sense of place, time, memory and dimensionmade especially poignant as the installation occurred during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy and the liberation of Paris.  



Fontana has worked since the late sixites in developing his unique art form, and has realized more than 50 sound sculptures, 20 radio projects, sound installations for natural science museums and sound compositions for dance. Some of large-scale sound installations have included Oscillating Steel Grids for the 1983 centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge; Distant Trains, 1984, at the bombed-out site of the former, major train station in pre-war Berlin; Sound Sculptures Through the Golden Gate, 1987, a live duet between San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He is currently developing an international, multi-city sound event which will use as a source the rich variety of sounds of the old city of Jerusalem and is also working on several installations for the Cologne, Germany.


Fontana was trained in philosophy and music, but even as a young composer, he was less interested in creating traditional musical composition than in exploring musical form in everyday sound. In the late sixties, he gradually moved from musical composition to musical sculptures in which he developed further the concept of the natural environment as a musical information system.


He has received fellowships from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Berliner Künstler Programm of the DAAD and the Japan U.S. Friendship Commission. His work was represented in the 1988 Biennale of Sydney, Australia; Resource Art, Berlin, 1989; the 1991 Whitney Biennial and Artifices II, Sant Denis, France, 1992. Fontana currently makes his home in San Francisco.

Photo-montage for Time Fountain, Fudaçio Tapies, Barcelona, 1995  


Musical Sculptures


These early works, dating from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, relate to the Fontana's musical training. They are based on his belief in the musical potential of the sonic environment. Fontana acknowledges the influence of Zen Bhuddism and John Cage, who defined music as a state of mind, on his thinking of the time, as well as the influence of minimalist composers, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.


As Fontana uses the term, a "sound or musical sculpture" is an environment of physical/spatial dimensions created by sounds. Unlike musical performance, Fontana's sound sculptures have no beginning, middle or end but , like physical objects, are continuums. Sound sculptures are perceived by the ear but can evoke visual imagery through mental processes. These works are demanding on the listener/viewer in that they require close concentration ("paying attention" in Cageian phraseology) and must be experienced slowly. They are equally demanding on the performers, not so much technically, as conceptually, since they defy the traditional rules and goals of musical composition.


One ore more of the following pieces could be performed as part of the exhibition, either in a gallery or auditorium setting.


1. Phantom Clarinets, 1974. In this performance, two clarinetists simultaneously play, as quietly as possible, sustained tones from a microtonal scale distributed between the two identical instruments. The

length of piece is indeterminate. The listener will perceive a subsonic sine wave, or vibration, which seems to float around the room, an illusion created by the beat frequencies resulting from the tonal

combinations. These frequencies at times seem louder than the actual, subaudible sounds of the clarinets, creating an illusion to both the audience and the players, that the clarinets are not making a sound. Fontana terms the phenomenon a "psycho-acoustic sound process." (Instructions for performance are attached).



2. Musical Sculpture for English Handbells, 1974. In this work, performers, widely distributed in a space, perform on a set of English handbells. Each player has a different random number sequence that gives

him durations of silence in between during which he rings his bell once until it becomes fully silent. This simple system produces complex and changing spatial patterns. The ending of the piece is ambiguous as larger bells always finish last. Thus, at the end, one bell may still be counting silences and occasionally ringing, and neither the other players, or the audience members, can determine if the piece is finished except by waiting and listening.


3. Piano Sculpture, 1978. In this work, the performers play a repetitive, 84-note, four-octave melody on four spatially distributed pianos. Fontana composed the notes entirely from the overtones of bells, reflecting his interest in change ringing. As the changing spatial patterns travel in the space and echo one another, they create an imaginary landscape. Piano Sculpture, like Musical Sculpture for English Handbells, uses musical language to mimic processes within the natural world.


4. Pipe Phase, 1978. Like Phantom Clarinets, this piece deals with physics of sound.. Its components include a player striking a 4.5 meter-long, suspended aluminum rod in a repetitive, rhythmic pulse, and four performers, holding a microphone in each hand, in continuous motion around the sound field of the vibrating rod. Each microphone "hears" or picks the different frequencies and harmonics in the room that are caused by the presence of the rod. The piece is, then, an exploration of space. Fontana created Pipe Phase during his residency at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia


5. Musical Sculptures for Carillon, 1988. These, Fontana's last musical sculptures, lead directly into his later installations. Conceived and realized for the carillon the UC Berkeley campus, these works could be

recreated on any campus with a carillon or at any site with proximity to a carillon. The musical patterns Fontana composed for the carillon are similar to those of Piano Sculpture.