Art or Sound: Bill Fontana’s Uniquely Unordinary 'Found Sounds'
Since the early 1970s, Bill Fontana (born in 1947) has been inspired by everyday noises from urban and natural environments for his “sound sculptures”, or acoustic compositions.
A key figure in the contemporary development of sound art, the American artist is celebrated for his many acoustic investigations, which include ones across major metropolitan landmarks like London’s Big Ben and Paris’ Arc De Triomphe.
Fontana shares John Cage’s view that forms of music can be everywhere with the right listening intent – even by chance.
By recording, rearranging, and transmitting ambient sounds in a process of studied assemblage using advanced listening tools, the artist develops new aural experiences.
His works transport listeners to parallel environments – which are typically inaudible to the passerby, like the bottom of a bridge.
Fontana grew up near the renowned Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio, which helped shape his musical upbringing and eventual career path.
He studied at John Carroll University and the Cleveland Institute of Music and received his Bachelor of Arts from the zew School for Social Research in New York.
Like various sound artists such as Nam June Paik and Alvin Lucier, he had formal training but chose to take on an experimental, and often anarchic, route instead.
In the 1970s, he moved to Australia where he was a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC).
There, he recorded “what Australia sounds like” across different field recordings for radio projects – such as one in a tropical rain forest during a total eclipse of the sun, and another of wave patterns beneath a floating pier on the Sydney harbour.
“From this moment on, my artistic mission consciously became the transformation and deconstruction of the visual with the aural,” he wrote in an essay.
The ABC was the first in many radio projects that would follow, such as his work for the BBC and NPR.
Photo: Bill Fontana Studio
On a visit to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he encountered notes written by Marcel Duchamp for the work The Large Glass (1915-23): “Sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture that lasts.”
Fontana was inspired to first use “sculpture” to describe his work, a term that he has been faithful to since 1976. Much like Duchamp would employ "found object" in his work, he would come to employ "found sound".
Like the Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, Fontana was selected for the Collide@CERN Ars Electronica Award, granting him a residency at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, (CERN) in 2013 to collaborate with a scientist – as per the programme’s format – in exploring the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.
Fontana was matched with the theorist Subodh Patil under his project “Acoustic Time Travel”.
Bill Fontana at CERN. Photo: Johanna Mathauer
He began using seismic accelerometers in 2004, tools that structural engineers use to measure vibrations, starting with Speeds Of Time, a live sound sculpture on London’s Big Ben – winning the Prix Ars Electronica in the category Digital Musics and Sound Art for the work.
Speeds of Time live microphone locations and sound sculpture sites. Photo: Bill Fontana Studio
Alongside the microphone and the hydrophone, the accelerometer would become one of his preferred forms of recording in subsequent works.
In a 2013 project in Abu Dhabi, he placed accelerometers in the sand dunes to capture their energy – revealing that the desert “secretly sounds like the sea”.
Over the span of his lengthy artistic practice, Fontana has taken part in exhibitions around the world.
His site-specific sound installations range from the likes of a pavilion for Foster + Partners to the entrance of the MAXXI Museum in Rome. As part of his fieldwork, he has ventured out to discover the “sonic characters” of different cities from Venice, Italy to Sydney, Australia and beyond.
Among many awards, Fontana has received the Bay Area Treasure Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a lifetime achievement prize that celebrates regional artists’ contributions to contemporary art.
He is currently based in San Francisco and is represented by the management consultancy Southern & Partners.
FAMOUS WORKS BY BILL FONTANA
For the most part, Fontana’s works involve “listening points” – where sounds are recorded – to “reception points” – where the sounds are streamed, reflecting their newfound sculptural qualities.
‘LANDSCAPE SCULPTURE WITH FOG HORNS’ (1981)
As part of the New Music America Festival in 1981, Fontana installed microphones in eight different locations around the San Francisco Bay such as Angel Island and Treasure Island for the work Landscape Sculpture with Fog Horns..
The microphones captured noises of the Golden Gate Bridge’s five different foghorns (devices used to alert vehicles of navigational hazards, such as fog), which were then transmitted over telephone lines to speakers along a pier at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.
Interestingly, the resulting symphony reflected the fog horn delays from one area to the next.
In 2018, the work was presented in a remastered version as part of the San Francisco Art Institute’s reopening of the Fort Mason campus.
‘DISTANT TRAINS’ (1984)
Photo: Bill Fontana Studio
Entfernte Züge (Distant Trains) was one of Fontana’s earliest large-scale works.
In this watershed work, he placed microphones across the busy, cacophonous Cologne Central Station and played the recordings via hidden speakers in an empty field in Berlin, where the Anhalter Bahnhof once stood.
The Anhalter Bahnhof was one of the largest rail stations in Europe, but following World War damage, was demolished in 1960 (except for its facade).
With Fontana’s sonic intervention, the empty field – once a busy thoroughfare of its own –was revived with the train sounds and announcements from Cologne.
‘HARMONIC BRIDGE’ (2006)
View of the Millennium Bridge in London. Photo: Peter McConnochie
In 2006, Fontana installed a network of accelerometers underneath the Millennium Bridge in London over the river Thames as part of the work Harmonic Bridge.
These sensors captured the various percussive tones generated by the movement of pedestrians, bicycles, the wind, and more.
The captured “hidden musical life” became a melody transmitted to listeners at both the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and the Southwark Underground station in London with speakers that were configured specifically for the architecture of the reception points.
“The work would enter the space as a slow-moving wave, emerging from the ground tone of the background hum and then slowly decaying back into it,” Fontana wrote.
‘SILENT ECHOES: NOTRE DAME’ (2022)
Photo: Bill Fontana Studio
For example, in his recent 10-channel sound installation Silent Echoes: Notre Dame (2022), he placed accelerometers inside the ten bells of the Paris cathedral to record minuscule vibrations.
He then live-stream them to the terrace of another major city landmark, the Centre Pompidou.
The work later travelled to Istanbul, Turkey where it was showcased via ten speakers in a sound exhibition at Arter Gallery.
Delve further into Bill Fontana’s video works on his website, Resoundings.
Ready to learn more about the history of sound art? Explore our comprehensive guide.
Cover: Bill Fontana during the Ars Electronica Festival 2014. Photo: Tom Mesic
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Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat