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Harry Bertoia
The Complete Sonambient Recordings Dustin Krcatovich , January 11th, 2016 09:23

There are some experiences for which words will never quite suffice. Most often, these are phenomena found in relatively untouched nature: the feeling one gets when gazing out over a large canyon, perhaps, or the myriad sensory stimuli that come with being enveloped by a waterfall (highly recommended if you've never tried it, by the way). For such experiences, language is hopelessly deficient, enough so to justify insufferable assertions of the "you just had to be there" variety.

Harry Bertoia was the rare artist who could manifest uncanny visceral experiences nearly worthy of Ma Nature herself, constructing complete and lucid statements with little but common metals, magnetic tape, and imagination. A successful sculptor and architect, Bertoia dedicated the last two decades of his life to his "sonambient" work, a self-invented form somewhere between sculpture and musical instrument which he insisted was neither. Consisting largely of industrial metal wire, sheeting, and the like, these pieces were designed to engage sight, sound, and touch; their elemental, idiosyncratic appearance, and doubly their staggering sound, make the idea of an "artist statement" utilizing the written word seem positively redundant and petty.

The Complete Sonambient Collection, a new 11 CD box set, makes widely available recordings of these pieces previously found only on coveted private press LPs, and also appends some unreleased tapes which the folks at Important Records assure us is but the tip of the iceberg and a harbinger of more things to come. Taken as a whole, the set is sprawling and overwhelming, but it's also an essential grip for any sound explorer worth their salt.

Based on interviews (including an extensive one included in the set at hand), Bertoia was as articulate as the next guy, but he was much better at defining what sonambient was not than what it was. The pieces aren't really sculptures, but they're not really instruments; they aren't just making noise, but Bertoia didn't think that what his creations generated was music, either. John Cage isn't the only person who would have contested the latter assertion, but musical or no, the sonambient pieces are powerfully physical: they created heavy reverberations which rang not just throughout Bertoia's Pennsylvania barn studio, but through anyone present to hear them. People who have visited the space and experienced the sonambient works up close speak of deep bodily vibrations, of "an actual physical landscape being created in sound". I've personally never been, and many will never get to go (though one can still book a tour at reasonable rates), but Bertoia had the foresight to extensively document his work in picture and sound for the curious. The recorded evidence is remarkable, but its lack of substantial physical presence does beg one's imagination to fill in gaps that can only truly be filled by experience.

As a result, the sounds of The Complete Sonambient Collection can yield a wide variety of mental and emotional interpretations. A section that sounds like outtakes from the soundtrack to Eraserhead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to one, might conjure a womb-like serenity for another; ostensibly pretty sections could easily evoke melancholy or anxiety to ears/brains attuned just so. These are sounds that heighten the senses more than direct them, leaving plenty to each listener's own inner workings.

To casual passersby, The Complete Sonambient Collection will probably just sound like a lot of clanging metal - which, admittedly, it kind of is - and even somewhat inattentive ears may have trouble seeing the appeal of an extensive box set whose pieces are often difficult to differentiate upon a cursory listen. For those with a little more attention to give, however, The Complete Sonambient Collection offers deep listening of the highest order. These are sounds which are as worthy of heavy contemplation as any, but they're even better when you just let go and feel them like so much sand between your toes, as an eternal sound for which there can be no words.