"In his own words"

Harry Bertoia, June 20, 1972

An iconic American success story, artist Harry Bertoia, sat down with interviewer Paul Cummings in the Sonambient Barn during the summer of 1972 for the Oral History Interview project of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. A selection of excerpts follows.

San Lorenzo

Photo courtesy of ArietoBertoia.org

San Lorenzo to begin with is a very small town. Total population was probably around 500. Rural, very quite, situated somewhere between the Alps and Venice.... 

Strangely enough the world was prescribed by the ability to bicycle for a day and I think I was able to cover a radius of about 25 miles. So I didn't know any of Italy beyond that point prior to coming to the States....

In the direction of the mountains there were very few towns and it was really mostly open prairie and a very wide river which did not carry a flow of water to its limit all the time but only on occasion. When many rains happened to be farther north or in the mountains then a flow of water was almost a mile wide, otherwise it was really a very small river with crystal clear water and all the stones, all the pebbles were white so in the sunlight it had an intensity of whiteness I've never seen anywhere else. 

My father's brothers (there were five brothers) had some interest in the arts. They themselves played some instruments and occasionally they would get together, chamber music you know.

This to me a great event. I would listen almost enchanted by whatever sounds they produced....


I do not consider any one individual present or past to be my sole teacher, but nature as a whole would be the first instructor, that my observations be directed toward the natural phenomena....

I was forever interested in as many activities as there came across my field of view, but I had no idea how I was going to do any of them... I was forever looking in the direction of finding other ways, perhaps beyond that which was existing. 

If I went to attend a concert, it would (I mean, aside from the pleasure of the experience itself of listening to music) also leave a measure of discomfort and generate the urge to seek another way to do something, such as sounds, you know. And whether sounds would forever come out of woodwinds and the strings and so forth.

Experimenting with Sound

Sound of course has been an element that has interested me all along... One specific example that comes to mind is an experiment that I did at one time in a small scale - shaping what amounted to very elevated cones going up. 

The lower portion would be the heavy one and the sound producing and as it went up and got narrower it would be the sound carrier so that the whole object in a way would function (although differently still similar) to let's say the bell in a bell tower. In this case the bells would be held up on a pin and allowed to move freely. You know, if it is balanced on a pin, it's own weight and gravity would tend to stay in its space... For even if the wind moves it, that's all right.

The Birth of Sonambient

"Placing a single wire... for the purpose of bending it, and while doing this I heard a sound..."

The very beginning, if I can pinpoint it, was when placing a single wire... for the purpose of bending it, and while doing this I heard a sound. Of course, I must have heard sounds from wires many times before and I must have heard sounds from other things....

Immediately the question to mind came, "Well if one wire produces such a sound, what would two rods produce or what would ten or a hundred?"

And this placed the whole thing on a little more systematic way of investigation so that there was a period of experimentation along that line, loose ends were coming together, two or three wires of various different alloys and various dimensions and so forth you know. And this introduced me to the potential that was there; and actually evolving sounds that probably were not quite heard before, at least not in that way.

Are Sonambient and sculpture separate?

Oh they are related....

If you photographically were able to capture that emotion, all the information which is a result of high temperatures and forces in the earth - it would come very close to the sounds [Sonambient] that we actually heard. 

So there is an element manifesting itself in all these various pieces. The fact that you see these so orderly and almost cool in presence is no indication, except on the surface. But I go beyond the visible portion of this, I go to the sounds and the sound to me is what I think makes it possible for me to get a little closer to what I want to say.

A Playful Affair

"We do not really know what sound it's going to have until everything is in place."

It is playful because you can take a single wire, hold it between your two fingers and see how high it can go, to see if it keeps straight and if you go any higher it starts leaning, it starts bending over and so you bring it back to a point where you think it holds itself....

Think how high I can go with a wire of a given diameter and given tensile strength and let it support itself that way. But then we can also make it much shorter. Therefore by so doing you begin to give it a quicker vibration because the shorter you get it and the more frequent the vibration.

So it's a play between the visible in this case and the tonal effect that you will only hear after the whole thing is put together. We do not really know what sound it's going to have until everything is in place.

During the welding and after that time, everything has been silent, no sounds were coming from anywhere. And when the welding has been completed then that framework which held the wire in place is removed and for the first time I hear the sound which is almost hearing the cry of a newborn baby. 

You heart that voice for the first time and from there on in I begin to go through a period of acquaintance. The first reaction may be quite definite, but I'm never quite sure whether I like it that much or not... It undergoes a period of adaption and I in turn have to adapt myself to what is here.

Sound: A Farther Reality

"It's a plunge into new dimensions..."                          Photo courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

I always tend to reproduce sounds here [in the Sonambient Barn] which I may relate to natural formations, even though they are invented sounds, still the idea is to see how close I can get to what appears to me another farther reality or a reality which has not yet come within my senses.

It's a plunge into new dimensions, but there are also echoes of the past. Sometimes when I hear the sounds they remind me of times that are gone. But this happens rarely and in many cases they will invite me on toward things that have not quite unfolded.