Sound sculptor Bill Fontana will rewire your reality

Transporting listeners from the Golden Gate Bridge to the inside of a particle accelerator

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

Bill Fontana’s sound sculptures are a mechanism for transporting listeners across time and space. The six audio pieces and accompanying videos in the artist’s solo exhibition “Sonic Visions,” at bitforms gallery SF, feature field recordings from the Golden Gate Bridge to the inside of a particle accelerator.

Fontana, who began making sound sculptures in 1976, studied with experimental composer John Cage at the New School for Social Research in New York. His compositions, like Cage’s, are not exactly musical but inspire a similar response, tuning listeners into the natural frequency of the world around them by appreciating its amplification. The harmony happens inside you.

The eight-channel audio installation, “Sequoia Trees River Echoes,” 2019, permeates throughout the atrium of Minnesota Street Project, where bitforms is housed, creating an expansive sonic experience even before visitors enter the gallery. It reminded me of Cage’s seminal 1952 composition “4’33,”” which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of rests, focusing the audience’s attention on whatever ambient sound bubbles up. Here, Fontana’s forest noises loop infinitely over footsteps, voices and street sounds.

In a 2018 interview for SFMOMA, Fontana quoted Cage as saying, “Music is continuous and listening is intermittent.” Fontana’s work does indeed make a case for music as continuous, as opposed to sound that never ceases, and he makes us question what we choose to hear.

The main gallery features four pieces presented on video monitors and headphones. In some of these, the audio portion predates the video by decades, offering Fontana’s own visual response to a previously acoustic-only work. One example is “Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,” 2021, which features video of the Golden Gate Bridge set to a 1981 recording of the foghorns. This is the piece that most resembles traditional instrumentation; the horns sound like a soloist repeating a single note.

But, for me, the most affecting piece was the least euphonious. “Vertical Wavescape,” 2022,” combines abstracted video of waves, at times colliding in a way reminiscent of a mushroom cloud, and a sonic assault of the waves crashing together. This comes to sound like an endless detonation, a rattling bombardment of white noise. It’s sublime in the truest sense: Fontana intensifies our experience of a natural phenomenon to the point of overwhelm.

Similarly mind boggling is “Acoustic Time Travel,” 2013, made while Fontana was an artist in residence at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. The piece, presented in a black box room, consists of an eight-channel score featuring the sound of particle beams passing through copper plates at the speed of light, set to a wall-sized projection of a black-and-white video of cars passing across the visual plane, abstracted by soft-focus and slow-motion. By making audible that which is invisible, and likewise complicating the visual, Fontana invites us into a dimension that uses sound to transcend perception.

To be transported via technology has become a novel concept, perhaps most recently realized with advancements in virtual reality, like the metaverse. But Fontana offers this experience earnestly. The trick, in his case, is to keep one foot (ear? eye? all three?) in the real world that he’s replicating. He isn’t degrading reality but serenading it, encouraging listeners to pay more attention, not less. Ultimately, it’s a listening experience that recalibrates your ear to the natural rhythm of the world around you.

IF YOU GO:

“Sonic Visions”

Where: bitforms gallery SF, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, through April 9

Contact: (212)366-6939, bitforms.art

Using conservatorships to deal with gritty urban issues

“Half the state thinks we conserve too many people, and the other half thinks we don’t conserve enough.”

Endorsement: Here’s one simple way to help crime victims in San Francisco

With Prop. D, The City’s voters can do more to help crime victims