When people think of art, they often limit themselves to visual representations, but sound, in fact, is an art form, too. Take Bill Fontana's sound sculptures, for instance.
"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," his artist's statement reads. "In those moments, when I became musical, all the sounds around me also became musical." Using sound as a sculptural medium, Fontana transforms our perceptions of visual and architectural settings, creating immersive environments that stimulate all the senses—the marker of powerful, dynamic art.
Fontana, 71, began his studies in Cleveland, Ohio. "I started paying a lot of attention to ambient sounds and finding interesting patterns in them," he explains. "For me, the act of listening was a creative act—a way of making music—at a traditional music conservatory in Cleveland; they thought I was crazy with ideas like that." Upon learning that the American composer John Cage was teaching a class on Experimental Music Composition at The New School in New York City, he did what most creatives throughout history have done: he decided to pack his bags and go. "I got to know him and the community around him," Fontana recalls. "They took me seriously with these ideas." It was there that he began to use sound recording the way visual artists use a camera. Marcel Duchamp would serve as an early influence, namely the concept of the found object. It was at MoMA that Fontana would have his first encounter with Duchamp's work—the match that would ignite a creative firestorm of sonic experiments.
From then on, Fontana would begin a string of revolutionary sonic pieces. His first was at a gallery in London called Haunch of Venison, where combined sound and video captured from a trip to Japan, where he recorded the sound of silence at a Buddhist temple. However, instead of recording the clanging of the bells, he decided to place special vibration sensors on each bell to measure how each became excited by its surroundings. This is but one of many strokes of Fontana's genius, iterations of which have persisted for decades.
Fontana's sound sculptures have found homes all across the world—Venice, Tokyo, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, and Berlin included. His latest work, however, has planted its roots in the sunny paradise of Miami Beach, Florida, a fitting home given the city's longstanding patronage of the arts, and its annual Miami Art Basel fair. Entitled 'Sonic Dreamscapes, it's comprised of individually recurring auditory recordings (over a whopping 72-channel Meyer sound system, no less) answering each other from different spatial points in SoundScape Park—previously a parking lot—just outside the New World Center (home to the illustrious New World Symphony).
The audio component of the installation kicks off every morning. Under the sun's bright rays, visitors are serenaded with a delicious symphony of mockingbird calls. The choice to include the mockingbird is not unfounded on Fontana, as it is the national bird of Florida. But this wasn't planned, per se. His choice to record their caws came after a day sitting in the city park. "The reason the birds are singing is they're looking for sex basically. I've noticed some very confused-looking pigeons." That razor-sharp wit is inevitable just one of many tools Fontana has in his arsenal of genius.
By afternoon, Fontana's self-described “musical vocabulary” grows as additional sounds are added to the repertoire. Then finally, as evening approaches, environmentally-inspired abstract videos will emerge upon a large video wall, allowing visitors to experience a flurry of floating sounds and meditative images. Think, a trippy '60s liquid light show, in glorious greyscale brought to life by the whirring sounds of the city's water pumps (which he recorded using hydrophones). "Where I really started was the relationship of Miami and Miami Beach to the coast. Because with the issue of the rising sea levels and climate change, seeing something very kind of important to think about." We love an artist whose work speaks to the times we are living in.
I can't help but ask Fontana if he will ever venture into the viral, Gen-Z territory of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response): a calming, pleasurable feeling often accompanied by a tingling sensation. brought about by various forms of stimuli—i.e., whispers, white noise, lip-smacking, etcetera. Fontana stares at me dumbfoundedly as I clumsily try to explain what ASMR is. Eureka! It clicks.
"I feel like I do that already," he muses. Indeed, that he does.
'Sonic Dreamscapes,' is on display now at the New World Center in Miami Beach, Florida