Sonambient Recordings

A Brief History by Celia Bertoia

Video by Important Records, announcing the re-launch of the Sonambient label.

Harry Bertoia was working on a small wire sculpture one day when a wire broke off and flew through the air. It made a sound as it whirred out of control and a more noticeable ping when it landed on some other wires.

Although he had probably heard similar sounds many times before, this time it struck a chord. You must imagine Harry speaking with his Italian accent, which never left him, in a deliberate and powerful tone. He wondered,

"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."

The next two decades were full of that experimentation, figuring out how thick rods needed to be to stand tall, how cylinders or cattail tops effected the tones, which metals sounded best, what configuration of wires produced what results and which sounds evoked what mood.

The next two decades were full of experimentation...

Video from Important Records, "Barn Motion Study"

Harry grew so fascinated with the marriage of sound and sculpture that he transformed our 18th century hay barn into a makeshift concert hall. Wooden floors and rafters absorbed the harsher noises and also allowed the vibrations to travel subtly through to humans' feet. Sparsely spaced vertical windows allowed delicious slivers of sunshine to decorate the metal and give a glimpse of the nature outside. Upon entering the barn, a hush immediately fell over any visitors, as if they were entering a cathedral. The high ceilings, rugged textures, and elegant sculptures commanded respect and awe.

Whether Harry and his old time carpenter actually planned it that way, or it was Harry’s commanding energy, or it was the sculptures themselves, or a combination of all of the above - there was definitely a sacred, rich atmosphere in the Sonambient Barn.

Video from Important Records

Harry's older brother Oreste, a musician by hobby and factory worker by trade, suggested that they gather several sounding sculptures together to form a sort of orchestra. Harry was intrigued by the idea and began to do just that.

He created a grouping of various types of tonals (as he liked to call them) and then would play them by stroking and brushing hands or mallets against them. Occasionally our cats would curiously venture into the barn. Harry enjoyed the felines rubbing up against the sculptures and inducing a softer, sweeter tone, much like the gentle nature of a cat.

The brothers started with a dozen or so, but eventually built up to about a hundred varied sculptures. Harry would bring new ones in, take old tonals out, re-arrange them in various configurations and play around until it suited him. He remarked that unveiling a brand new tonal, as he called them, was like meeting a new born baby!

The first Sonambient album, produced in 1970

Harry, all along, knew that this body of work needed a name. Unlike much of his work which remained untitled, he had an instinct that these sounding sculptures would have a lasting effect.

Sitting around the dinner table one night, he asked all of us to come up with possible titles for the tonals. Each of us had various good and not-so-good ideas, but the final result was Sonambient.

Harry was not totally satisfied with that name, but felt it would satisfy the labeling requirement. Harry described "Sonambient" as "the environment created by the sounding sculptures." Its meaning has evolved to include the sculptures themselves.

It was in 1970 that Oreste and Harry decided to produce their first Sonambient record. From the time that the Sonambient Barn was finished in mid-1970 until Oreste's untimely death in late 1972, the brothers worked and played tirelessly in recording hundreds of reel to reel tapes. Harry pursued production and their first LP album was released in October, 1970. Ten more ensued just after Harry's passing in 1978.

Photo by Jeffrey Eger

Harry developed a sore throat which turned into laryngitis in 1977. Thinking it would eventually heal, Harry ignored it until Brigitta and others encouraged him to seek a diagnosis. Our family doctor, Dr. Kistler, did not like the looks of it and referred him to a specialist. The diagnosis finally came: lung cancer, advanced stage.

Harry refused to believe it at first, knowing that he still had so much creativity inside and endless future projects to complete. All the Kubler-Ross phases came in rapid succession; anger, depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance. Harry did not waste much time on any of them, but set to work as he had always done throughout his life.

One of the projects he insisted on finalizing was the next set of Sonambient records. It was a top priority for him, understanding that he was creating a piece of art history; art and sound intertwined to introduce another human realm of experience. In today's world, sculpture and sound are often presented together, but for Harry and his era, this was a unique concept. As his health deteriorated and he lay in bed, there were piles of papers and books beside his bed. "Paper! I need more paper!" he called out for Brigitta, who brought him what he needed so he could sketch and make lists.

He managed it all; picked which recordings to produce, named them, drew the album art and directed the entire process. Hundreds of originals were delivered to the house in late 1978. The family, still spinning from his death, didn’t quite know what to do with them all.

Fast forward to 2013. The Harry Bertoia Foundation was born. John Brien of Important Records had stumbled upon some of the original recordings and was totally enthralled with them. His specialty was avant-garde, out-of-the-ordinary music and Sonambient certainly fit the bill.

He approached the family, came up with a proposal, and the rest is history. Through Important Records, we now offer the original eleven albums as well as some newly released material. We no longer have Harry in our midst, but we have his playing of Sonambient, which is like no other music and like no other person playing Sonambient.

Sonambient; the merging of art and music, sensation and experience, vibration and visuals. Click here to visit Important Records and explore the re-launch of the Sonambient label.