Norwegian sound art has been gaining attention in recent years with exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Venice Biennale. In the light of this, it is interesting to look back on a little known part of the history of Norwegian sound art, namely the American sound artist Harry Bertoia’s extensive work in Norway.
The term “sound art” stems from the early 1980s, but there were experiments with sound outside the traditional music context throughout the entire 20th century. This way of using sound arrived in Norway in the mid-1960s with composers and visual artists such as Arne Nordheim, Kåre Kolberg, Sigurd Berge, Marius Heyerdahl, Rolf Aamot and Paul Brand. It was during this time that Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) entered the Norwegian art scene.
From furniture design to sound art
The first time I saw one of Bertoia sound sculptures was in the Grieg Hall in Bergen in the early 90s. There was something immediately attractive about this oversized sound object, as if the tactile metal surface itself testified to an unheard form of music and sound. But it was only in connection with the recent re-release of Bertoia’s recordings that I realized what an extensive and deep work this really was. The surprise was no less when I discovered that he had been active with exhibitions in Norway throughout large parts of the 1970s. I became so fascinated by Bertoia that I decided to travel to Bertoia’s studio in Pennsylvania to experience the works up close, and also track down the story of Bertoia and Norway.
I became so fascinated by Bertoia that I decided to travel to Bertoia’s studio in Pennsylvania to experience the works up close, and also track down the story of Bertoia and Norway.
Bertoia is perhaps best known as a furniture designer. He designed one of the 20th century’s most iconic chairs for furniture manufacturer Knoll, but he only worked for Knoll for three years. For the rest of his life he worked as an artist, and for the last twenty years the work with sound was essential. He started to develop his sound sculptures around 1960. It was at this time that he accidentally discovered the principle of the sculpture’s sounding rods while he was bending one of them. He was curious about how several rods would sound together, something that brought him into a systematic, experimental period.
A greater artistic unity
Harry Bertoia’s son, Val Bertoia, has worked at his father’s workshop in Bally since the early ’70s and he is driving me home to Bertoia’s farm in Pennsylvania. In 1968 Harry Bertoia started to renovate a two hundred years old barn that would eventually become central in his sound works. Here he gathered about a hundred sound sculptures, held concerts and made recordings.
There is a very special atmosphere inside the old stone barn. Several Bertoia furniture is placed along one of the walls, and the rest of the floor is filled with standing sound sculptures in various sizes from small miniatures to sculptures that are several meters high. Giant gongs are hanging from the ceiling, and the light outside is seeping in through large windows. This is not just a random collection of sound sculptures but Bertoia’s carefully selected favourites, assembled into a larger sounding unity. They complement each other, creating a unified sound in the same way as the various instruments in an orchestra.
Val touches the sculptures, and the entire room quickly fills up with sound. The partials of the various sculptures weave in and out of each other and the vibrations propagate through the floor from one sculpture to the next. The room is filled with everything from dark bell-like sounds to bright metallic textures, and we are surrounded by an immersive, spatial sound. In Bertoia’s barn the sculptures, acoustics, space, furniture, and the surrounding Pennsylvanian countryside melts together to form a greater artistic unity. There is a unified idea behind the various elements, while at the same time clearly reflecting the landscape and nature where they are located.
– Everyone has different reactions to the sculptures, says Val. – The space and the surrounding air is important, and the building itself becomes a resonance box. The wooden floor and vibrations between the sculptures are also essential. Harry and I made hundreds of sound sculptures, and those that are here in the barn are a selection of the best. Harry’s brother, Oreste, composer and musician in his spare time, had many concerts here in the barn. His sister Ave would sing and her voice got the sculptures to resonate.
Between sculpture and music
Although the term sound art was first adopted in the early 1980s, there exists a long tradition of working with sound in the field of visual arts. Marcel Duchamp created several conceptual sound works and the Dadaists and Futurists produced both experimental sound sources and theoretical works dealing with sound. However, what separates Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures from many of his contemporaries is the incredible detailed and rich sound. Bertoia’s sculptures have the textural depth of a highly developed musical instrument such as a gong or a church bell, and thus stands in an intermediate position between sculpture and music.
Although the term sound art was first adopted in the early 1980s, there exists a long tradition of working with sound in the field of visual arts.
This finely tuned work is something we also find in the choice of material. Bertoia was very interested in various material properties and experimented with about fifty different alloys.
– At the end of the ’60s he began to use silicon bronze, and he continued with alloys such as beryllium copper and monel, an alloy that was originally used for boat propellers, says Val.
Behind the interest in materials science, metallurgy, acoustics and nature studies, we can sense a scientific interest. This coincides with much of the musical avant-garde of the 20th century, where scientific fascination and studies of the constituents of sound was important.
– Harry’s favourite magazine was Scientific American, says Val. – He was an experimenter, an intuitive engineer and he chose certain commissions that were related to science.
Bertoia and Norway
Although Bertoia was extremely productive and had many exhibitions and commissions throughout his career, he said in an interview from the early ’70s that exhibitions were something he tried to avoid. An exception however was Norway, the country outside of the United States that he visited most often to exhibit his works. In 1976, the Grieg Hall in Bergen was the arena for one of the largest solo exhibitions of Bertoia’s sound sculptures during his lifetime.
Bertoia’s close friend from art school, artist and film director Clifford B. West (1916-2006) became a spokesperson for Bertoia’s works. West was deeply interested in Edvard Munch’s works and was in Oslo to make a documentary about Munch when he met Bente Torjusen, who at this time was employed at the Munch Museum.
– Clifford made a film about Harry Bertoia in 1965, and when he came to Norway in 1967 to make two films about Munch he asked for my help, says Torjusen. – I travelled to the US to help with the films, and while I was in the US Clifford said that I absolutely had to visit Harry Bertoia. Harry gave me a sound sculpture that I still have. When I returned to Norway, I showed it to several people, and the one who were most enthusiastic was the art dealer Kaare Berntsen. Kaare was an important force behind getting Bertoia’s sculptures to Norway and had a very good cooperation with Clifford.
– My father bought a lot of his art, and persuaded Bertoia that Norway was the place to come to, says artist Sofie Berntsen, daughter of Kaare. – Because of this, our garden gradually filled up with Bertoia’s sculptures and there were exhibitions in Norway. My father visited Bertoia on his deathbed, and it made a very deep impression that Bertoia would meet him before he died.
The Grieg Hall
The first exhibition of Bertoia’s works in Scandinavia opened in Gallery Kaare Berntsen in the autumn of 1972. After this came several exhibitions in Gallery Kaare Berntsen (1976), the Grieg Hall (1976), and the Henie Onstad Art Centre (1977), as well as permanent installations in the US embassy in Oslo (1977) and the Grieg Hall (1978).
The Bertoia exhibition in the Grieg Hall during the Bergen International Festival was held two years before the official opening of the Grieg Hall, and thus it is the very first event that took place in the Grieg Hall. Norwegian television, radio and newspapers gave Bertoia wide coverage in the ’70s, and in conjunction with the exhibition in the Grieg Hall, the Hungarian-Norwegian director Istvan Korda Kovacs made the documentary Harry Bertoia – music to see, which was premiered on Norwegian public television the same year.
In 1978, less than six months before his death, Bertoia was back in Bergen to hand over a giant gong for the opening of the Grieg Hall. This gong still hangs in the Grieg Hall’s foyer. In the Grieg Hall recording studio, some of the most important records in the black metal genre were recorded over a period of over 20 years. One of the first recordings were Varg Vikernes’ debut album Burzum (1992). Burzum ends with the track Dungeons of Darkness, a five minute exploration of dark timbres – this is the sound of Bertoia’s giant gong.
Eirik “Pytten” Hundvin, who ran the Grieg Hall recording studio until it closed in 2013 explains:
– The gong has hung there since the opening of the Grieg Hall, and I have used it a little, but Dungeons of Darkness is the track with the most active use of the gong. The Grieg hall foyer is a strong acoustic space, and it’s amazing that so few have taken advantage of it. With a long reverberation time of four to five seconds, it is as if the sound lasts almost forever. There is a lot of air in the middle of the gong and the challenge becomes finding the resonance in the object so that you can get the big masses of air to play.
After Bertoia’s death in 1978, much of the attention surrounding his work in Norway disappeared. Yet there still is an active expertise in Norway.
– We have always worked with Bertoia, says Thomas Berntsen, son of Kaare Berntsen. – And we have bought and sold along the way. You notice when you’re outside of Norway, that little Norway suddenly becomes a player on Bertoia.
– We still have a large collection, including a sound sculpture that originally stood outside the Colorado National Bank. It is five meters high, three meters long and consists of copper rods. Sotheby’s has asked to lend it for a sculpture exhibition they hold outside of London each year.
In recent years, the Kaare Berntsen gallery has helped with several Bertoia exhibitions, including Bertoia’s first solo exhibition in his native Italy and two exhibitions for Sotheby’s in New York.
– There has certainly been a growing interest in Bertoia recently, especially the sound sculptures and the bush shaped sculptures, says Thomas Berntsen.
– The Bertoia solo exhibition in Sotheby’s own gallery S2 in New York in 2014 shows that his position as an artist has increased considerably in recent years.
Although Harry Bertoia’s barn far out in the Pennsylvanian countryside is an amazing place, its location makes it inaccessible to most people. Fortunately, this place is well documented in the form of audio recordings. Harry Bertoia and his brother Oreste began to make large quantities of recordings in the ’70s, of what would become 11 albums under the collective term “Sonambient”. These recordings have not been available for decades, but are now being released again. John Brien from the American record label Important Records came across the records by chance.
– I came across the records on the Discogs website, says Brien.
– I knew his furniture and I had a picture of Harry over my desk for many years. I never really looked into him much further and was really surprised to discover that he’d made these interesting records.
The first edition of the re-release was quickly sold out. Last year Important Records released new records by artists Emanuele Giannini (EMG), Tara Jane O’Neil, and Eleh, where the artists use and interpret Bertoia’s sound sculptures in new ways. They are also planning a similar Bertoia-related release with the American sound artist and musician Olivia Block. This is just the beginning. In connection with the re-release of the Bertoia box, John Brien discovered a collection of at least 350 unreleased tapes, recorded by Bertoia himself.
The first release of previously unreleased material came at the end of last year. It was released on vinyl, and the production was done entirely in the analogue domain.
– I love the warm analogue sound. Harry’s vibrations hit the microphones, went to tape and now those very tapes will vibrate the vinyl cutting head without ever becoming digital 1’s and 0’s.
The completion of the Sonambient box is really just the beginning and I’m eternally grateful for that. Once you enter the world of Bertoia you don’t want to leave, says Brien.
Back in Norway
Although much of Bertoia’s works outside of the United States took place in Norway, and the Kaare Berntsen gallery has continued to be an international player on Harry Bertoia, it is difficult to find traces of Bertoia in contemporary Norwegian sound artists.
The closest we come to the Bertoia sound sculptures in Norway is the artist Sverre Hoel’s extensive work with sound sculptures, often done in collaboration with the percussionist and composer Kjell Samkopf. Nevertheless, everything should now be ready for the growing interest in Harry Bertoia’s works to reach Norway once more, forty years after the giant gong was installed in the Grieg Hall foyer.
To read more about the released works of Harry Betoia, click her.