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A sound sculpture by Bill Fontana wants to bring back Notre Dame de Paris to life

Author: Marc Pottier, Art Curator based in Rio de Janeiro
Article published on November 5th, 2020
Original Article

[Discover today’s artists] Inspired by a rehabilitation of Notre-Dame de Paris that still remains to be imagined, many artistic proposals have arisen. The installation by the American sound sculptor Bill Fontana remains the most stunning: « Silent Echoes – Notre Dame » or the exploration of the silence of the 10 surviving bells. Listen !

« Music is continuous, only the listening is intermittent » (Henry-David Thoreau).

France has already had the pleasure of welcoming several times this sound-sculptural genius, born in 1947 in Cleveland, who now lives and works in San Francisco when he is not recording all over the world. In 1985, he took part in the 13th Biennale of Paris and occupied the Basilica of Saint-Denis in 1992. His « Sound Island 1994 » for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the arrival of the allies in Normandy and the liberation of Paris crystallizes his work. He had broadcast live on the façade of the Arc de Triomphe the images and sound of the sea off a cliff on the Normandy coast, erasing all other noise and covering the mess of Parisian traffic.

 

The integration of unpredictability

Always fascinated by music, with his first recording machine in hand in 1967, he immediately left for New York to join the ‘experimental music composition’ course of the American poet-composer John Cage (1912-1992) who affirmed that one of the most interesting components in art was the unpredictability factor where external elements are accidentally integrated into the work. For more than 50 years, with a wide range of places and monuments, steel bridges, water reservoirs, turbines, century-old trees… Bill Fontana would have put on his headphones and acted as a resonating body of the environment. The film is added to his sound installations with the help of a fixed camera that concentrates the gaze by penetrating all the details of the object or place under examination.

 

VIDEO – Nanzenji Silent Echoes

From the accelerometer to the ears.

Today, the sound sculptor travels with his portable recording studio, microphones, hydrophones and accelerometers that belong only to him. These are ‘transducers’, normally used by structural engineers to measure vibrations in structures such as bridges. But technology isn’t everything, as Fontana says, « the most important equipment is actually between my ears.

 

Delocalized sounds

« Based on the principle that the act of listening is a way of making music, I have both a musical and scientific approach to recording and to the way I present sounds that I delocalize and juxtapose with architecture, landscapes and historical situations around the world. This has led me to explore not only the sounds that come directly to my ears but also those, to be discovered, that inhabit the physical world, » he confides. « In 2006, I created « Harmonic Bridge » at the Tate Modern in London in which I transformed Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge into a musical instrument, live with a network of accelerometers mapping the bridge’s hidden vibrations that were transmitted to the museum’s Turbine Hall, » he gives as an example.

Exploring the Sound of Silence

In his sound sculptures, Bill Fontana creates physical experiences revealing other forms of presence in the objects, architectures, landscapes … on which he works. Through his works, the public enters a land of invisible wonders, those of acoustic interiors. « My idea for Notre Dame de Paris is derived from a series of works that explore the sound of silence. The first of them, before the « Resonant Silences » of the Met Life Tower in New York, was created in Japan, where I used acoustic measurement technology on ancient bells from Nanzen-ji Buddhist temples (Kyoto). He then revealed that even when they do not ring, their silence is apparent. Their sounds and those of their environment are very present. His high-resolution sensors mounted on each of the bells ‘listened’ and recorded the harmonic echoes of the place.

 

VIDEO – Resonant Silences NYC

The heartbeat of Notre Dame

Notre Dame is the soul of Paris. Following the tragic fire of 2019 the bells fell silent. By Silent Echoes – Notre Dame, Bill Fontana shows that in fact its bells are still ringing secretly, like a heartbeat of the wounded cathedral. This sound is created by their harmonic response to the ambient sounds of the neighborhood. The idea is to create a live streaming sound sculpture with the 10 bells in which high-resolution vibration sensors will be mounted on each of them. The work, which could be broadcast everywhere, has a ‘curative’ dimension, an expression of suspended time created by the double combination of this fire and the current series of confinements due to the coronavirus.

Let’s hope that one of France’s major cultural institutions will capture its poetic dimension and seize the opportunity to bring « Silent Echoes – Notre Dame » to life. Singular’s is convinced that it deserves it!