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Sound sculptor Bill Fontana at Abu Dhabi Festival

His commission for the Abu Dhabi Festival may have resulted in his first-ever trip to the UAE, but Bill Fontana’s fascination with the capital may just inspire him to pay another visit.

“I’m quite excited to be here … I’m grateful for the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) for providing me with this great opportunity … the sights and sounds in Abu Dhabi are so diverse — whether in the city or beyond — that I’m considering returning here in the near future to do some more recordings,” said Fontana, who pioneered the concept of “sound sculptures”, which blends various sounds from a single location into a multilayered sensory experience using microphones and speakers.

The artist was in the capital on January 15 to participate in a discussion in the New York University Abu Dhabi campus.

“It was a great experience … I’m pleased that people are interested in sound sculptures and there was a good give and take with the audience. In fact, one of the audience members, a female university student, told me that she’d like to use my techniques to record the sound of the equipment used here to extract oil. That piqued my interest and I might come back just to do that!” said the San Francisco-based artist.

Fontana used to be a musical composer. It was the state of mind he would enter into as he wrote music that inspired him to seek new ways in which to capture the world around him.

“It was such an organic transition … I was always fascinated with how, during the times I felt inspired enough to compose, not only was I filled with music within but the sounds around me also became a part of my musical journey,” he said.

Fontana began carrying around a cassette player, recording various sounds he felt were “musical” in nature. Before long, he had accumulated a large library and began exploring the different ways he could utilise them.

After various experimentations, Bill successfully created his first artwork, “Kirribilli Wharf”, in 1976, as a result of his work with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The installation, an eight-channel recording that was played continuously in a darkened gallery, featured sound of waves splashing around a pier in Sydney Harbour.

“I was fascinated with the way people reacted to the recordings when they entered the gallery … people tend to get so used to their surroundings that they tune things out … but once they experience my work, it’s as though they’re hearing everything for the first time,” Fontana said.

Soon, demand for his unique creations began to grow, and he was being commissioned for “sound sculptures” around the world, including the United Kingdom, Austria, Spain, Thailand and Japan, as exhibition pieces and radio commissions.

“I’m always ready to go to new places and see what sounds I can capture, so I was very excited when Admaf contacted me, requesting this commission, as I had never recorded the desert before and didn’t know what to expect. Before coming here in October, I did some research to see which areas might be ideal … when I arrived, I studied those areas before narrowing down to an area on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi,” Fontana said.

This entailed placing several sensors and accelerometers — equipment used by structural engineers to test, measure how and when a structure moves, vibrates and tilts — deep within the sand.

“They were placed about five to six kilometres into the desert, to make sure that I would be able to capture its sounds fully. Later, when I retrieved them, I was surprised to discover that the sounds recorded made the desert and its shifting sands sound like the ocean!” Fontana said.

“I didn’t expect that — I thought there would be minimal noise, including the sound of anything that may live in the sand. That shows that you never know where you might find — it is unexpected and fascinating — sources of ‘musical sound’,” he added.

He will now study the recordings further in his home studio and see how to best blend the different sounds. In addition, he will create a video installation to accompany the final recording.

“After collecting any sounds, I like to retreat to my ‘man cave’, that is, my studio at home, which takes up an entire floor. I’m very happy that my wife, an art collector, and children are understanding about my passion and work … in fact, growing up, my son and daughter would always come in and watch me … I think it seemed like Aladdin’s cave to them because it’s filled with so many types of equipment,” Fontana said.

“They still come in from time to time but they are 18 and 13, so they have their own passions to pursue. My son wants to be a filmmaker and my daughter a fashion designer,” he added.

Now that he has creations from more than three decades to look back at, which among them would be his favourite?

“Well, generally, whatever I’m working on at the moment tends to be my favourite or the one close to my heart. But, if I had to choose, I’d say the recording I made in a rainforest during a full solar eclipse in 1976. It was one of the pieces that really influenced my work,” he said.

“That recording was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience in this type of environment. As the eclipse reached its height, all the birds became confused and sang at the same time, because suddenly they were being plunged into darkness. Once the Sun was fully covered, a deep silence filled the forest. Everything stood still until the Sun re-emerged,” he recalled.

However, Fontana also noted that among his latest commissions, he is quite excited to be creating a sound installation of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, as part of its 60th anniversary in September 2014. During his time there, he was matched with a “science inspiration partner”.

“It’s been a humbling experience … not just the amazing things being discovered there, but the atmosphere of collaboration and support, which is quite different to the individualism that’s typical in the art world,” the 67-year-old artist said.

Fontana is the only the third artist-in-residence at CERN, which is the birthplace of the World Wide Web and home to the Large Hadron Collider, a high-energy particle accelerator.

He was chosen from among thousands of international entrants for the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN award, for which a digital artist receives a monetary prize and a three-month residency made possible through a collaboration between CERN and international cyberarts organisation Ars Electronica with funding from external private donors.

He will also undertake a residency at Futurelab in Ars Electronica, an organisation based in Linz, Austria, as part of his award. Ars Electronica was founded in 1979 around a festival for art, technology and society that was part of the International Bruckner Festival.

“I’ve titled my work ‘Acoustic Time Travel’, which, I’ve always said, sounds like the title of a science-fiction movie, but that’s a rather accurate description of the sounds I heard during my time there,” Fontana said.

I kept going into the Large Hadron Collider to see how to best capture the sounds it creates … once I even took a loudspeaker inside it and looped the sound back to it, 100 metres underground … the result was quite startling,” he added.

In April 2013, the Large Hadron Collider was shut down for a two-year renovation. However, Fontana believes he has managed to collect enough material to complete his commission in time for the celebrations later this year.

“It has been such a privilege to be given the opportunity to listen to the rhythm of all these incredible machines … it reinforced my belief that every sound we experience in daily life is a description of the space it inhabits,” he said.

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

Bill Fontana’s installation, “Desert Surroundings”, will be exhibited at the Emirates Palace throughout the duration of the Abu Dhabi Festival, which will take place from March 21 to April 20. For more information, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae