"Artist Makes Musical Sculpture"

By Leonard Kucinski
The Morning Call, April 5, 1970

From the archives of the Harry Bertoia Foundation, via The Morning Call.
Harry Bertoia is the portrait of an artist as a busy man.

A visit to his shop—he never refers to it as a studio—in Bally verifies this. The former garage houses more art than most museums. It is difficult to walk around without tripping over or bumping into a piece of sculpture.

"I'm getting ready to ship this bunch to New York," Bertoia said pointing to a group of about 15 works. "They're for a show at the Staempfli Gallery. This show will be a little bit unusual. It will have a sampling of all kinds of work I’ve done over a period of 10-15 years. There are some stainless pieces, bronzes, brasses and musical pieces. It will be a good representation."

Ben Franklin Lives
Photo from harrybertoia.org

Bertoia, an internationally known sculptor, was born in San Lorenzo in northern Italy. But as he walked around his shop and described his sculptures, he looked more like that well-known American, Benjamin Franklin. With his rather high forehead and long hair, Bertoia would need only the little glasses old Ben wore to strengthen the image.

He laughed at the comparison and made a motion as if he were flying a kite. "I'm waiting for the first warm day to get my hair cut," he said. “It keeps me warm now.”

Bertoia walked under two huge masses of bronzed rods suspended from the ceiling. “This is for a new shopping center in Flint, Mich.” He said. “It will be shipped in two pieces and joined together there. It’s interesting to know that even shopping centers are becoming interested in commissioned art works.”

Like all of Bertoia’s works, the Flint piece is not titled nor is it a representation of anything. His art is non-objective, meaning any resemblance to anything living or dead is purely coincidental. The beauty of his works—and they are beautiful—comes from the particular work itself and not from a resemblance or allegorical interpretation of an identifiable object. The metal and its form produce their own beauty. The work doesn’t tell a story and has no meaning other than what the person viewing it sees.

Well-Known Fountain
Photo from the Woodmere Art Museum 

Bertoia has made many large commissioned works which have earned him critical acclaim. Perhaps the most spectacular work is a bronzed screen 70 feet long and 16 feet high which occupies the focal point of the main banking floor of Manufacturers Trust Co., New York City. 

Perhaps the best known is a four-ton bronze and brass free-form fountain in front of Philadelphia's new Convention Hall. The reason so many persons saw it is because it was recently featured as a color cover photograph on the state liquor stores’ price list.

Quite apparent around Bertoia’s shop are tone-producing pieces. Bertoia has been experimenting with sound pieces for several years now and has reached the point where he can play them to produce a rather unique type of music. The pieces themselves are quite simple in appearance. They are generally constructed of steel, stainless or bronze rods welded vertically to a flat horizontal base made of a similar metal. They vary in height from less than a foot to more than 10 feet and produce sounds ranging from rustling grass to cathedral bells.

The sound is produced by running a hand over the top or along the side of the vertical rods which bang together and reverberate. The motion of the swirling rods is almost as impressive as the sounds they produce.

Frees Art
Video from Important Records

The sound pieces are the ultimate step in Bertoia's search to free his art from a one-dimensional plane. Bertoia originally started out to be a painter but felt the flat surface of a canvas was too restricting for his expression. So he switched to sculpture and increased the scope of his work. After a while he even found sculpture restricting him. That is when he hit upon the idea of adding sound. Many other sculptors have made sound-producing works but no one has gone into it quite so extensively as Bertoia has with his idea of producing a new music medium.

Although the shop does have a few sound pieces, the "orchestra" is located in Bertoia’s barn, a couple of miles away in the Berks County countryside.

After giving some instructions to his two assistants—James and Edward Flanagan, two brothers from Allentown who have been with him for years—Bertoia headed for the barn to show off the orchestra.

Practices Nightly

Bertoia, while driving a slightly beat-up manual shift car, said he was quite excited about how the experimental music is turning out. "I practice an hour or two every evening," he said, “and I'm beginning to get some good tapes, I’m still experimenting with the instruments; adding some, omitting some. It’s something subject to growth. It’s never finished.”

From the outside, Bertoia’s barn looks like any other well kept barn. But inside there’s a difference. The natural beauty of the old wood has been retained and further enhanced through subtle carpentry. The main room of the barn has the appearance of an old high-ceiling church, without, of course, the altar and pews.

The sound sculptures are everywhere and arranged with care about grouping and access. "Try to think of a violin," Bertoia said, “with the strings on the outside and the soundbox inside. This is the same thing. Only the strings are inside the soundbox. The barn is really the acoustical container.”

Depends on Mood

In one corner of the room, there is a tape recorder and a stack of tapes. "Since there is no way of scoring this type of music, everything has to be recorded." And every tape is an original. “It's amazing how it records just how you feel. The finished tape depends very much on the mood.”

Bertoia put a tape on the recorder. “This is one I am pleased with,” he said. Sitting back in one of the comfortable free-form chairs—which he designed for comfort and beauty—he presented the concert.

It is difficult to describe something so completely different. The instruments are unlike anything seen on a concert stage and the concept of sculptured music may be staggering to anyone introduced to it. Even after hearing it several times, a listener finds it difficult to convey its scope, other than by saying it is very unusual and pleasing. It is relaxing and enchanting but again indescribable. It is something a person has to experience himself.

Free-Form Music

But the theme of the music is the same theme Bertoia uses in his sculptures—the only meaning it has is what the person listening to it decides it means.

"People have different reactions to the same tape," Bertoia said. “They associate the sounds with their experiences and form their own opinion of what it means.”

Bertoia does not instruct, interpret or explain anything. It is up to the listener to do this. All he does is play the instruments and record the sounds.

Bertoia has had offers to perform at various places but has declined because of the difficulty involved in transporting and setting up the metal pieces. “Right now,” he said, “the instruments stay here. But I will make the tapes available sometime in the future.”

The next step Bertoia plans is to build a new acoustic container for the instruments. “This barn was built for hay,” he said, “and it is not acoustically perfect. I'm thinking of building something in the shape of a box or sphere that could move to change the sounds of the instruments. This way the container would become part and parcel of the instruments.”

Whatever Bertoia decides to do, you can be sure it will be spectacular. He has long ago rejected the usual and headed in search of new artistic frontiers. The only question now is where he will head after conquering his new musical medium. It will be interesting to see.