Heavy Metal

Untitled sounding sculpture (1978), by Harry Bertoia.  Johnson Art Museum, Cornell University.

I spent several summers on my grandfather’s berry farm in the Skagit Valley sixty miles north of Seattle. To irrigate his water-hungry crops, he had drilled a well in the 1950s. The water was conducted to the fields through 20-feet long pipes that had to be laid between the rows and assembled with their connectors and sprinklers.  I would carry three of these long pipes over my shoulder from the storage stack out into the field. The metallic scraping and pinging echoed through, and was amplified by, the tubes of metal become agricultural organ pipes.

My grandfather also taught me how to prime the hand pump and then flip the switch on the Briggs & Stratton motor to get the system to spring to life. The pumphouse was about the size of an old-fashioned privy of which there were also several on the farm.  The motor sang a deep, powerful pitch, and inside the small pumphouse the thrilling richness of its overtone series enveloped me in all its elemental, enthralling glory.

What I heard sounded like a mighty Dominant Seventh chord that, in long-standing European practice, is held to be an unstable sonority. According to the dictates of functional harmony this chord requires resolution—movement to the stable triad of the home key, or a clever evasion that merely delays the ultimate gratification of the ear.

The adjective “dominant” is more than merely suggestive: the chord seems to impose its will on the ear. By the 1980s Feminist music theorists and historians were asserting that musical practices built on this “dominance,” this apparent urge towards climax and release, were inherently male constructs imbued with a power that was not simply symbolic but became musical enactments of masculine desire and control.

Yet this pumphouse chord was paradoxically neither inert nor restless.

On the piano that same chord struck is far more nervous.  The reason, I later learned, is that the “natural” seventh of the overtone series is about a third-of-a-semitone lower in pitch than that of the piano’s equal temperament—a tuning system that has prevailed in European classical music for only the last two centuries. In effect, the seventh heard in in the overtone series is more consonant, more stable than is natural-occurring relative. Nature’s Chord does not seek resolution. European musical thought and practice has modified it and sought to exploit its potential energy—ruthlessly so those just-mentioned critics would claim.

My grandfather’s pump exploited that chord in a different, but mysteriously related way.  His hydraulis (the name the Romans gave their pipe organs) sang the water out of the earth and into the fields, the song given metrical shape through the slapping of the sprinkler arms against the spout and the steady return: chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk—shooooooosh. Standing some distance from the well you could still hear the motor’s chord accompanied by the polyrhythms of all those sprinklers, and likewise, back in the overtone-chamber that was the pumphouse the, symphony of spray mingled with Nature’s Chord.

It struck me then, and continues to amaze me now forty years later, that sounds so beautiful, majestic even, could be brought to sounding life by water rushing up from the ground and into pipes laid flat on the soil and powered by an old motor resonating in a plywood shack as if it were the body of beautiful, beaten-up guitar.

I was put in mind yet again of that old pump this week on reading in the New York Times of the fate of mid-century American sculptor Harry Bertoia’s oeuvre of sounding metal.  Born in Italy into a musical family, Bertoia dedicated the last two decades of his life—he died in 1978 at the age of 63—to works he called Sonambients since they gathered up the forces of nature into ambient sounds with long rods welded in a symmetrical, grid-like patterns to a metal base. The rods are swayed by the breeze or by human hands either alone or wielding a cloth-covered mallet. Bertoia made hundreds of these objects ranging from a few inches to fifteen feet in height. Fascinated by the sounding properties of metals, he continually experimented with alloys and with numbers and configurations of rods, as well as crafting caps of different shapes working like bells or chimes that ring and clatter in chaotic concert. The rectilinear form of most of the Sonambients and the techniques and materials used to make them have an unapologetically industrial quality. Yet the rods sway and jangle against one another like reeds or loose sheaves of wheat. Wheel-like gongs and other fabulous constructions join the ever-changing ensemble. The modernist shape and sheen conjure and consort with nature. The sounds are a collaboration of weather and art. No two of the hundreds of Sonambients are identical.

After emigrating with his family from Italy as a teenager, Bertoia studied art and design at Detroit’s famed Cass Technical High School. Later he learned to weld in California. Bertoia was also a designer of furniture and jewelry and after the commercial success of his Diamond chair fabricated in the 1950s he devoted himself exclusively to sculpture. He bought an old farm in the Pennsylvania woods, refurbishing its ancient stone barn and converted it into his studio for art both visual and sonic. After Bertoia’s death, the recordings he had made of his Sonambients were rediscovered and in 2011 issued by Important Records on 11CDs with a booklet of 110 pages of sound scholarship. These make for fascinating, epic listening, the underlying constancy of nature conjured and transformed through the human-made interface of sculpture and in-the-moment interventions of the artist.

Then in 2019 Third Man Records—founded by another Detroiter, the songwriter, guitarist and singer, Jack White, like Bertoia a Cass graduate— re-issued the 11 LPs that the sonic sculptor had recorded in the 1960s and 1970s with his older brother Oreste.

Most of the pieces run to around twenty minutes. Many have whimsically literal titles seemingly dissonant with the clangorous warmth and oscillating urgency of the music:  “Gong Gong”; “Elemental”; “Energyzing”; “Swinging Bars.”  Then there’s the archly over-the-top triple superlative “Belissima, Bellissima, Bellisima” whose sibilance captures something of the quality of the sound of the piece, one that, not to get too grandiose, echoes with a distance Platonic truth.  Here’s just an excerpt:

Two of the Bertoia’s three children continue to be locked in battle over his legacy. As a result of that sibling struggle twenty of his Sonambients were sold at Sotheby’s in 2021. They fetched nearly six million dollars, many going for ten times the estimate.

One of Bertoia’s Sonambients made in the last year of his life from beryllium copper and naval brass used to stand on the porch of the Johnson Art Museum, itself a kind of magnificent concrete architectural sculpture designed by I. M. Pei and also completed just a few years before. The cavernous interior of the museum itself would hum in sympathy with the rods’ music when whipped or cajoled by the winds blowing off Lake Cayuga stretching slenderly 40 miles northward. I’d often go visit the sculpture with my children, toddlers and adults having to crane their necks to take in its height and the logic of its artfully engineered chaos.  Somewhere in there I always heard the pipes and pumps of my grandfather’s farm.

In 2003 Bertoia’s Cornell Sonambient was felled by a windstorm. Undamaged, the sculpture was nonetheless but moved inside to the museum’s magazine, protected against the natural elements, but silent and somber.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com