Interview: Bill Fontana

curr-interview-fontana_portrait1.jpgBill Fontana has been creating musical networks and making “sound sculptures” since the early 1970s. His works are usually large in scale and often involve the transmission of sounds from one ‘listening’ location with a network of microphones and/or sensors to another location where the sounds are overlayed onto the local sonic environment. Fontana’s work focuses strongly on the idea of listening as a compositional act – that is, it is driven by the idea that music surrounds us constantly and that the patterns of music are audible if we just take the time to listen. Examples and excerpts of many of Fontana’s works can be heard and seen at his website,

Bill Fontana will be answering reader’s questions in the comments section below until December 6, 2007.

Peter Traub: Could you tell us about your early compositional experience and what brought you to make your first “sound sculptures”?

Bill Fontana: My early experience was experimenting with very minimal compositions, such as “Phantom Clarinets”, a microtonal duet for clarinets breathing together while sustaining sub-audible sine tones that created the illusion that the beat frequencies were louder than the sounds of the instruments. I performed this with Daniel Goode in New York in the early 70’s. I also began to investigate ambient noise and found sound beginning in the late 60’s when I studied with Philip Corner in NY and came to know John Cage.

Besides recording sounds, I began to stick microphones inside of objects to hear their resonances and experimented with manipulating simple domestic objects as sound makers while applying tape manipulation to create textures from manually moving tape, etc. I also realized a collaborative project with the Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, called “Gentle Surprises”, in which she selected a large number of small found objects, that I wrote individual sounding scores for. I did not begin to call my work sound sculpture until the early 70’s when I started to realize my first live installations at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York in 1973 and later in Sydney’s Institute for Contemporary Art (1974) in which I created a simple work called “Sound Sculpture with Resonators“. In this, a few objects with resonant properties were placed on the roof of the building with microphones inside that explored how the objects (large bottles, cylinders) resonated in response to ambient noise. Signals from these microphones were directed to loudspeakers in the gallery space below. A pure sound sculpture that was listening in a musical way. This thinking evolved over more than 30 years to what I am doing today.

Peter: Do you see/hear your work in terms of coming from a particular tradition or lineage? Your approach to sound suggests associations with Cage, Lucier, Tudor, and their contemporaries, but in terming your pieces ‘sound sculptures’ you also suggest an association with the visual, of which there is usually a significant component, namely the space in which your sculpture resides and resonates in. Do you see your work within a historical context of a visual artistic practice?

Bill: I see my work as a bridge between visual art and music. I was influenced by Cage, Tudor and Lucier but also by Marcel Duchamp and the idea of the found object. Maybe my work is a kind of synthesis of these influences. Cage, Tudor and Lucier inspired me with the possibilities of sound as a musical language, but Duchamp inspired with the sculptural implications of this in his famous quote

“musical sculpture
sounds lasting and leaving..
forming and sounding
a sculpture…
that lasts”

Peter: Natural sound is central to many of your pieces, especially the use of natural sound transplanted or displaced (or “trans-placed” as Anthony Moore termed it) into urban or man-made settings, such as your 1987 piece, “Sound Sculptures through the Golden Gate”. The displacement and recontextualization of these sounds within new spaces is part of what makes your work effective. In the process of displacing the natural sounds, how do you treat them? That is, do you do any sort of processing on the sounds to transform them, do you prefer that they speak for themselves?

“Sound Sculptures through the Golden Gate” (1987)

Bill: There is no processing applied to the sounds except the artistic choice of putting a microphone near it or to map it. All my editing takes place before the recording or transmission is made. The transformation occurs in the re-contextualization of the sound. “Sound Sculptures through the Golden Gate”, with its combination of vivid sea bird sounds and the deep musical tones of the Golden Gate Bridge Fog Horns has a musical quality that is almost Wagnerian. Many compositional details, such as how the placement of 8 microphones on different parts and dimensions of the Bridge would reveal natural acoustic delays was a type of acoustic processing that was deliberately chosen. I made many test recordings, studies of possible microphone positions and created acoustic models of what the real time mix would sound like. I wanted the final product to seem compositionally complete, not as a random set of live sounds. Often people hearing it would be amazed to discover that it was live. They always assumed it was a recording, that it was almost unimaginable that the live sounds of the moment could be anything other than random. I began to think of the live sounds of particular environments as being cyclical systems, almost like orbits …. a finite set of repeating possibilities over time …. a musical system. I started to coin the expression “musical information networks”.

Peter: Why do you think displacement or trans-placement of sounds is so effective perceptually? Have you found particular situations in which the sound/listening location combination is more effective than others?

Bill: The idea of treating sound as a living found object has fascinated me for years. In our culture people learn not to listen to the sounds around them. The juxtapositions of relocated sounds to places works best when there is an interesting conceptual, historical connection to be made. In fact all of my sound sculptures are involved with not making random relocations but are carefully considered juxtapositions. For example, the Cologne Main Station was acoustically relocated to Berlin’s former Anhalter Bahnhof, the Millennium Bridge in London to the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, the sound of the sea from Normandy sent to the facade of the Arc de Triomphe during the 50th anniversary of D-Day. If one goes through the whole list of projects over the years, all the relocations have a conceptual link to the site. I am interested not only in the acoustic impact that a site has on the relocated sound, but also on the conceptual and psychological effects ever time. Sound sculptures are works of long duration, even permanent duration, so it allows for issues of memory, not only historical regarding the site, but also in the memory of the visitor returning to the site. Since many of these relocations occur in outdoor spaces with living soundscapes, the presence of the sound sculpture is never intended to obliterate this soundscape, but to harmonize with it as a semi-transparent overlay, eventually for the returning listener, becoming a bridge to this soundscape. Sculpture has historically involved the embodiment of some aspect of the human condition. My sound sculptures, since they are permanently listening, hope to activate listening to one’s surroundings as a permanent condition. Perhaps this is a way of realizing Cage’s remarkable idea that “music is continuous but listening is intermittent” (I am paraphrasing this, as I do not have the exact text with me).

Peter: Networks in some form or another have been important in your work, especially with respect to relocating sounds in realtime from their original sites to listening locations. One of the best examples of this is “Sound Island” (1994) in which you took realtime audio of the ocean at Normandy and played it through network of speakers surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. More recently, your 2006 piece “Harmonic Bridge”, uses a sensor network to relay vibrational information from the London Millenium Foot Bridge to speaker systems in Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern and the Main Concourse of Southwark Station. In your early works that transferred sounds into new spaces, you worked over phone or ISDN lines, is that correct? Could you tell us how you dealt with transmitting audio in one of your early pieces versus how you have approached it in a more recent work? Have the changes in technology affected the structure of your pieces and how you approach composition? Have the changes and improvements in networking technologies been beneficial to you as an artist?

“Harmonic Bridge” (2006)

Bill: The basic aesthetic practice of transmitting sound has evolved since 1978 when I first began to use it with analog telephone lines and wireless microphones to various digital and streaming servers.

Although the sound quality and ease of doing this has improved enormously in 30 years, my basic aesthetic with this has grown but still comes from the same basic set of assumptions, that music is a process going on constantly in the natural and built environment and that my sound sculptures devise ways of mapping a living sonic matrix to an architectural site. I had used live radio as a broad social transmission network. “The Cologne San Francisco Sound Bridge” (1987) was a live duet between the Golden Gate Farallon project in San Francisco, and an installation at the Museum Ludwig called “Metropolis Cologne”, which was a live sound portrait of Cologne. Through WDR (Westdeuthcher Rundfunk) I made a live radio concert mixing the sounds from these two projects which was broadcast simultaneously to about 200 radio stations in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The idea of this kind of simultaneous displacement of sound through radio intrigued me, because I would imagine all of the different contexts that the sounds were heard in. I repeated this process again in 1993, to do another radio sound bridge between Cologne and Kyoto.

Right now, what I would like to achieve in terms of utilizing the capabilities of contemporary transmission networks would be to use streaming servers to realize simultaneous versions of sound sculptures in different locations, maybe even to build of permanent body of live work that could be sent anywhere…

One other thought about the live transmission sound. One way that I conceptualize the world is to imagine all of the sounds happening simultaneously. I am interested in creating work that creates a sense of this. That the real, passing, ephemeral moment is the ultimate acoustic reality, and I wish to find ways of connecting with this.

Peter: What do you see as the role of electronics and processing in your work? In listening to an excerpt of your recent work, “Pigeon Soundings” (2007), I wasn’t sure if the sound was processed or just layered and presented untouched, and found myself very curious as to the compositional process behind the piece, especially since it is an ongoing installation. Likewise, with your new piece “Panoramic Echoes” (2007), to what degree do you compose musical structure with the sounds and recordings that are played into Madison Square Park in NY? Where, for you, does the bulk of the compositional process happen in the creation of a piece?

“Pigeon Soundings” (2007)

Bill: Both of these works represent some new directions in my work. “Pigeon Soundings” was based on actual recordings I made of pigeons in the bombed out ruin of Saint Kolumba in Cologne. When the museum was built on the site 15 years later I created a sound collage of edited fragments of the original recordings which were 8 channel sound maps, and fed these through a 24 channel matrix mixer and composed trajectories and orbits for these sounds to move in. In the Madison Square Park project I created a transparent time structure on a Matrix Mixer so that whenever the reactivated Met Life Tower bells rang, their sound passed through a matrix of 4 delays that moved from the rooftops of 4 buildings surrounding the park. I also created a composition of edited bird recordings to sometimes project into this park from the rooftops. The speakers used here were very unusual, parabolic ones that were so high up that no one could see them and the perceived origins of the sounds was mysterious

Both of these works as well as “Speeds of Time” (2004), which was a live musical deconstruction of Big Ben where every tick and stroke of the bell happened 8 times instead of once, involved creating very deliberate compositional structures. The Big Ben project and the Madison Park treatment of the Met Life Bells involved creating composition that was a transparent time structure that created live responses to incoming sounds. “Pigeon Soundings” was based on 8 channel recordings of pigeons that had inhabited the ruin of a bombed out church. My treatment of these recordings was to create a spatial composition where segments of the source material moved through a 24 channel loudspeaker matrix. In all of these the character of the original sounds was never altered, but its spatial and compositional relationships were defined.

Peter: “Pigeon Soundings” also has this wonderful historical gesture, in which you take recordings of the pigeons that used to live in the ruins of the St. Kolumba Cathedral in Cologne and play them back within the space of the new Kolumba Museum which sits atop the exposed ruins of the old cathedral. This sort of historical displacement (do you have a different term for it?) seems analogous in some ways to your displacement of sounds from one space to another. You do something similar in your 1984 piece, “Distant Trains”, but this time the gesture is inverted in a way, taking a current recording of a train station and playing it within the ruins of the Anhalter Banhof in Berlin. Could you talk about this thread as it runs through your work?

Bill: I am interested in acoustic memory. The Berlin project created the illusion that this bombed out ruin had come back to life, especially when one heard it from a distance. It would have been strange to try and recreate the original sound of this station because of its dark history at the end of the War, it was more optimistic to connect to the busiest living German Station in Cologne. “Pigeon Soundings” is taking sounds from the recent and displaced inhabitants of the ruin of a bombed out church, which became an amazing archaeological site. The pigeon, the dove are rich symbols in Christian culture and it was quite interesting to return these sounds to a site in which one could view 2500 years of Cologne’s history.

Sound and sound recording and the very act of listening is a process that deeply involves acoustic memory. Pattern recognition in music and speech requires remembering what one has heard and correlating it with the passing sounds that soon become the past and anticipate the future.

In historical spaces like in Cologne or Berlin, I also in a strange way believe that the sounds and the memory of all the sounds that happened in these spaces is still palpable, and I wish to bring this sense to the surface in my work. I believe that music and sound art deals with creating different sensations about the passage of time, the most interesting temporal sensation for me is timelessness, like in the Zen meditations, that if you listen well to the sound of a decaying bell, its sound never stops.

Peter: Another significant thread that runs through your work is the sonification of the inaudible. “Harmonic Bridge” is a good example of that, as well as your 1983 piece, “Oscillating Steel Grids along the Brooklyn Bridge“. These structures in a sense act as both microphones in picking up external vibrations, and processors by responding to those vibrations within a frequency range dictated by their physical makeup. How do you treat these sounds compositionally? Do you take a different approach to them as you would natural recordings?

Bill: I regard these hidden sounds as being as natural as any other sound that comes to my ear. In order to find them, I use technology that extends my ability to listen.

The sonification of the inaudible, that is sounds passing through the air as picked up by vibration sensors that enter the acoustic worlds of our physical surroundings fascinates me. One can view the entire physical world as alive with vibrations that we hear in the air or can discover. Once, when teaching in Cologne, I made recordings of the Rhine with an acoustic microphone, an accelerometer on a floating structure and a hydrophone. Sound moving at different speeds from the same energy.

Besides the physical differences between sound in the air and vibrations in solids and underwater, most people find their everyday acoustic worlds hidden by lack of attention, and iTunes. I wish to bring these hidden aspects to the foreground.

Peter: When creating a sound sculpture, how much does the nature of the playback space influence your notion of the audience in creating that piece? Do you think of your sculptures as being in dialog with the spaces they inhabit, or in dialog with their audience, or some combination of both?

Bill: They are certainly in dialog with the spaces they inhabit. All sound is a description of the space it is sounding in. The playback space is half of the equation. Its history, its acoustics, its architecture are very much a part of the story. In the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, people thought that the live sounds of the Millennium Bridge echoing in that space was actually being made by this building, which was still a partially active power station. In Cologne, in “Pigeon Soundings”, the background ambient sounds of bells that rang 14 years ago sound like they are ringing today and people wonder what is real.

Peter: I’ve always felt that sound installation or sound sculpture is underrepresented in the music world, and yet it seems to get (at least recently) greater attention in visual art circles. Part of the issue, for me, is that sound installations are a lot harder to experience than a recording on a CD or a photo of a painting or sculpture – you actually have to go to the location of the piece to experience it. As a result, it is harder to write about or critique pieces when you haven’t actually experienced them in place. Do you agree with this assessment, and why or why not? How do you gain or build an audience as an artist when your works are site-specific and only accessible to people in the vicinity or willing to travel to experience them?

Bill: It is certainly true that it is under represented in the music world, but also in the art world. Part of it is the difficulty in reproducing the experience on a CD and the other is a lack of a visual element.

In spite of these limitations, my work as slowly developed an ever widening audience. My web site has been a useful vehicle for distributing documentation about my work. I recently purchased a Sound Field Microphone and will experiment with using it to document how the spaces of my installations sound, which may enable me to release DVD’s or DTS audio discs with surround recordings.

I also believe that the future is very bright for this medium and the possibilities and understanding of it are opening. I have worked for about 30 years, and will need another 30 years to realize everything I imagine. The barrier for me is that museums expect to see something, they want objects making sound. I am trying to change their thinking so that the visual qualities of a space, the view of a landscape and one’s imagination while hearing visual sounds is enough.

Following the initial interview, I asked Fontana a few follow-up questions regarding some of his responses. — Peter

Peter: Due to the nature of your installations being unbounded in time, what are your compositional concerns in terms of time-scale? For example, if there is no beginning or end to a piece like “Panoramic Echoes”, how do you think about time within the piece and the length and relationships of cycles within the system? You mentioned that you “think of the live sounds of particular environments as being cyclical systems, almost like orbits”, and I’m wondering how this concept is tied into the compositional structures of your pieces.

Bill: Whenever I create a sound sculpture I do a lot of field research to study repeating cycles of sound. On the Millennium Bridge in London for example, the cycles had to do with times of day and which determined the density of footsteps on the bridge, the weather conditions, rain and wind velocity; and of course time of day. These conditions and the variations within those parameters are repeating cycles with predictable outcomes. These may never be exactly the same, but are generally the same. This same kind of cyclical nature of sound environments holds true for every situation, except for totally random events that may occasionally occur. This cyclical acoustic quality that places have makes it possible for me to precisely determine microphone/sensor positions when I am transmitting sound.

The sound sculptures are unbounded in time and that sense of timeless listening or consciousness is important for me to convey in my work. It comes from my early to present days of making field recordings, which is one of my great passions. Approaching a soundscape or sounding situation with microphones, I could listen through headphones in absolute physical stillness to every sonic detail of the moment, amplified by this microphone. These thousands of repeated experiences over 35 years has contributed to the excitement I feel when perceiving patterns of sound. In my sound sculptures that are perpetually listening to somewhere, I wish to share this excitement with other listeners by delineating with the microphone/sensor placement the precise musical potential of a real moment in a real place.

Peter: With respect to the following quotes from your responses: “One other thought about the live transmission sound. One way that I conceptualize the world is to imagine all of the sounds happening simultaneously. I am interested in creating work that creates a sense of this. That the real, passing, ephemeral moment is the ultimate acoustic reality, and I wish to find ways of connecting with this.” A bit later you say the following: “Sound and sound recording and the very act of listening is a process that deeply involves acoustic memory. Pattern recognition in music and speech requires remembering what one has heard and correlating it with the passing sounds that soon become the past and anticipate the future.”

How does the idea of the “ephemeral moment” fit with the act of listening as a deeply involved function of acoustic memory? Do you see these things as contradictory in any way, or complementary, and why?

Bill: For me sound is a continuum, like a passing river. This continuum is an endless series of these ephemeral moments that become a continuum by the act of listening. Listening connects the dots. Listening from dot to dot is held together by acoustic memory. That is why in the old Zen meditation about listening to the sound of the decaying bell, if one’s focus does not waver, the sound of the bell never stops. Once in Kyoto, when working on “Acoustical Views of Kyoto” and the Cologne – Kyoto Soundbridge, I visited a famous Buddhist temple called Chion-in, that has a very large temple bell that only rings on New Years Eve or very special occasions. I visited the temple with the purpose of getting permission to place a microphone or sensor on the temple grounds to transmit sound from. A monk took me around and we came to this famous, mostly silent bell. I asked for permission to transmit from the bell. The monk was very surprised and wondered why transmit from a silent bell. I placed a microphone in the bell and accelerometer on the bell, and put headphones on the monk and much to his astonishment he discovered for the first time in physical reality that this bell was never silent….

Peter: What do you consider ‘traits’ of a work that connects with the acoustic reality of the ephemeral moment? In your compositional world, are there certain types of musical structures that more effectively connect you to this idea?

Bill: It is hard to make generalizations about this. In my work the connection to the acoustic reality of the ephemeral moment is to create the illusion of constancy. Many of the sound processes I work with are continuous sound processes, such as the sea, the oscillations of a bridge, the clockwork and bells of Big Ben. In fact whenever a group of microphones are permanently installed somewhere, the very continuousness of the transmission generates a coherent musical structure that becomes apparent the longer one listens. In a sense I am finding these hidden structures in sound environments and creating the possibility for someone else to discover them. Works such as “Speeds of Time”, “Panoramic Echoes” and “Objective Sound” (2007) bring composed transparent time structures to the continuous flow of incoming sounds. “Objective Sound” also returns me to a starting point in my work, by using a collection of found objects as resonant listening devices.

Nov 1, 2007
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3 Responses

  1. helen:

    Bill: This is a really interesting interview. I’m curious to know if
    there’s a “field” for this kind of work? And if there are any
    younger composers doing similar work.

    — Helen

  2. Bill:


    I know from my teaching experiences in Germany, that are a couple younger composers really interested in these ideas. I never thought about whether there is a “field” for this kind of work. I think there is, because it bridges a lot interests that young composers have with sound installations, as well as how interest extends to visual artists and even architects

  3. Interview with Bill Fontana on Networked Music Review | Nick Hasty:

    […] really helpful interview for me right […]

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