In Tandem: The Innovative Life of Harry Bertoia


Harry Bertoia via

I write this in the throes of academic panic.  This week’s stress speaks to the struggles in the 32 weeks ahead of this program (not counting, really).  While I anticipate returning to the world outside of student life, I am aware that is this the career path I have chosen and the need for communication doesn’t have a curfew (or understand my Netflix separation anxiety).

Harry Bertoia has been one of my most admired sound artists for years, and especially today.  I am forever enamored by multidisciplinary artists who not only learn, but master a bounty of crafts.  It is somewhat bittersweet writing about such an accomplished individual when I am struggling with finding time to buy toilet paper, but that’s perhaps a story for another post.

I fell into the Bertoia fan club as most do, by means of his modern furniture design (such as the Diamond Chair).  Bertoia succeeded in furniture design before moving onto sculptures.  As with furniture design, Bertoia was humble about his triumphs as a sculptor.  Bertoia was commissioned for over 50 public sculptures before delving deeper into sound.  In the haze of the 60’s, Bertoia found himself devoted to what he dubbed “sonambient sculptures”.

Knoll so adequately describes Bertoia’s sound art practice:

Bertoia’s Sonambient sculptures—which structurally emulate the forms of wheat fields, willow trees, dandelions and cattails—attest to his lifelong appreciation of music (he counted Vivaldi and Mozart among his favorite composers). However, the decision to incorporate sound into his sculptural work came about in a rather serendipidous manner. In his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, Bertoia accidentally struck a metal rod while bending it and was intrigued by the sound. He began experimenting with the different tonalities associated with brass, bronze, beryllium, stainless steel and nickel alloys. Noting that musical instruments have secondary aesthetic properties to their primary, functional designs, Bertoia reversed this hierarchy, so that the sonorific qualities are secondary to the aesthetic. Like the wind responsible for the rustling of leaves, distortions caused by a breeze or a draft create gentle chime-like sounds in Bertoia’s Sonambient sculptures. He later worked with recording artists to capture the sculptures’ sounds in a barnyard setting, and released as a collection of eleven vinyl LP records.

Don’t let this post be your only glimpse into the mastery of Bertoia’s work;

Listen and see Bertoia’s sonambient sculptures here.

Listen to Unfolding, Bertoia’s album here.

I am a sucker for a good quote and would like to leave off with words by Harry himself that speaks perfectly to his artistry:

“Immersion into the vast recesses of the mind leading to the realization that this inner wold is as immense as the cosmos outside…”

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