Now Play This

By Ken Shimamoto
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A wild idea to couple renowned musicians with Harry Bertoia’s sounding sculptures leads to a history-making experiment in music and art. 

Throughout his career, the writer, poet, and record producer David Breskin has explored the intersections between music and other art forms. For the six concerts that comprise ‘SCULPTING SOUND: Twelve Musicians Encounter Bertoia,’ which will be presented at the Nasher February 22-27, in conjunction with Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life, Breskin added the immediacy of live performance to the concept.  

Each concert will feature two world-class players taking turns performing on their main instrument and manipulating Bertoia’s sounding sculptures—a series of “shadow duets.” On successive nights, audiences will hear guitarists Nels Cline and Ben Monder, trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Nate Wooley, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and JD Allen, acoustic string players Jen Shyu and Brandon Seabrook, drummers Marcus Gilmore and Dan Weiss, and pianists Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. Breskin’s longtime collaborator, engineer extraordinaire Ron Saint Germain, will be on hand to record all the concerts, as well as additional material by the musicians using the Bertoia sculptures. 

sculpting sound musicians with david breskinLeft to Right (top): Nate Wooley, Ambrose Akinmusire, JD Allen, Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis, Craig Taborn. (bottom): Nels Cline, Ben Monder, Marcus Gilmore, Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Brandon Seabrook. 

Bertoia sought to create an instrument anyone could play without training or practice (or that could be “played” by nature without human intervention). Around 1960, inspired by hearing the sound a single wire made when it broke while he was bending it, Bertoia started building his “tonals,” at first soldering beryllium copper rods to wire grid bases. Later, he used drilled flat metal bases. When activated by touch, wind, or ambient vibration, the rods jostle together as they undulate, creating a unified voice rather than a percussive clatter.  

Bertoia deliberately varied the length of the rods in each piece, so that none sounds a specific pitch; instead, the listener hears a wash of sound from many tones of proximate pitch that evoke sounds of nature. The artist added “cattail” tops to rods, recalling the wheat fields of his childhood in Italy, and cylinders to add ringing sounds. He experimented with different metals and built larger pieces—first gongs for thunderous sounds, later bell-like “singing bars” of varying lengths. He used what musicians now call “extended techniques,” such as rubbing the edge of a gong with wet fingers to create haunting, eerie sounds. The sonic palette of Bertoia’s tonals has influenced a variety of musicians including Angelo Badalamenti, John Cage, Brian Eno, the Kronos Quartet, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. 

In his “Sonambient Barn”—a stone structure in the woods on his farm in rural Pennsylvania—Bertoia created a meditative space where he could enjoy the sounds of his favorite pieces, displayed in groupings to make an array of sounds available in each station. The swaying of the rods, the tones they produced, and the vibration they created in the floor all combined with the green light from the woods outside the barn to produce a total sensory environment. 

From Bertoia’s brother Oreste, a recording engineer, came the idea of tape recording “concerts” of the pieces in the barn. Bertoia self-released the first recordings of his sculptures’ sounds under the rubric Sonambient in 1971. He compiled 10 further LPs which were released in 1978, the year of his death. The albums found a receptive audience in a world where 20th century innovations had expanded listeners’ understanding of what music is or can be—where color and texture can be as important to music’s impact as are pitch and rhythm. In 2015, Important Records remastered the 11 albums and released them in a CD box set to coincide with the Bertoia centennial. In 2021, Third Man Records reissued the box set on vinyl. 

The musicians Breskin selected for ‘SCULPTING SOUND’ have spent decades honing their craft and are accustomed to taking musical risks. The duet pairings are intended to highlight stylistic contrasts. The concerts were originally planned to incorporate 15 pieces from the Nasher exhibit, but Celia Bertoia of the Bertoia Foundation agreed to send another 20 pieces that were formerly housed in the Sonambient Barn for the purpose of these concerts.  

Breskin and I spoke via Zoom in December 2021. 

Ken Shimamoto: What was your first exposure to the Bertoia sounding sculptures? 

David Breskin: When I was a teenager, my father had a Bertoia “cattails” piece, about head high, a 4x4 copper 16-rod. “Cattails” means that the rods have weights on the top of them. That became a fixture in his den, near a sliding glass door that went out to a deck. He had multiple sclerosis and was unstable on his feet, and at one point, he was losing his balance and he mistakenly grabbed onto the object he could see, which was the sound sculpture, and he and the sound sculpture went down to the floor. And the sound that it made was tremendous and quite startling—like the gong at the beginning of Birds of Fire, the Mahavishnu Orchestra album. 

Shimamoto: How did this series of concerts at the Nasher come about? 

Breskin: I was attending a Julian Charrière show at the Dallas Museum of Art, across the street from the Nasher, and was able to reacquaint myself with Jeremy Strick, who’s director of the Nasher. I’d been looking at this Bertoia show they had coming for some time, maybe a couple of years, and in the back of my mind I always had this idea that wouldn’t it be just wild fun to organize something where you had really great musicians, could corral a bunch of Bertoias and say to these musicians, “Sic ’em! Let’s play in the real sense of play.” It was sort of a pipe dream, but I thought “There’s no harm in mentioning this,” and Jeremy was extremely receptive to it. 

Shimamoto: I want to spend some time talking about how you came about selecting the musicians, and the format in which they’re being presented. 

Breskin: How do these 12 become our dirty dozen? There’s always some randomness to it, and some quirks of just following your nose—or your ears—to things that you think might be provocative. We’re not going to just celebrate virtuosity; we’re looking to celebrate the people who are the most creative and open. These 12 are all not just great instrumentalists, they’re great improvisers. That’s key. While some of these artists may bring in some prepared material, whether it’s sketch-like or more formal, the sets will be largely or wholly improvised. Bertoia said every person who plays [his sculptures] is going to sound different because every person is different.  

To your second question about the format, originally, I had just the basic idea: musicians meet Bertoia. But as I started to think it through, it dawned on me that whenever a Bertoia sounds, it really sounds and it goes on for a while. So if you make the musician play their instrument and essentially duet with themselves, you’re foreclosing a lot of opportunities for interactivity. I thought a way around this might be if I engaged with the Bertoia material while the musician played their instrument. But that would be less interesting than another musician on par with the first guy or gal playing. So maybe the way to do it is a little like Noah’s Ark: they come two by two, and they’re grouped so we have the same instrumentation. I’m not going to pair a pianist and a drummer, or a saxophone player with a guitar player. They have to have a certain kind of cooperation, a sense in the moment, but no one has experienced this before, so there’s necessarily a kind of experimental aspect to it. You have this kind of tension between a chance thing, novelty, and then an incredible mastery, but in dialogue with a respected peer. It ratchets up the possibilities for disaster. It also ratchets up the possibilities for deliciousness and depth and reflexivity—where one thing becomes very reflexive to something else, so you get a third thing. 

Every musician will be in the day before their concert and will get time, hopefully several hours, to explore the material. I will be there as a little bit of a guide. Celia Bertoia, one of Harry Bertoia’s two daughters, who’s an expert at this and is very supportive, will be there, if not for the whole festival, then for part of it to help introduce them. We’ll have some of Bertoia’s tools that he purpose-built to play some of these tonals. We’ll have mallets for the gongs and that kind of stuff, so hopefully [the musicians] will have enough experience, even if they didn’t meet Bertoia till the day before. They’ll have slept with Bertoia that night, and we’ll see what kind of shotgun wedding we can create the next day. 

Shimamoto: This meeting place of preparation and chance is the essence, I think, of experimental music. There’s potential for unplanned events the musicians are going to have to respond to. 

Breskin: It clearly will be an attempt at art, not craft. The key distinction between art and craft is that the craftsperson knows what they want to make, and how to make it. The artist never knows completely what he or she wants to make. The work has to talk back to them. They have to discover something in it for it to really be art. It’s, again, the difference between art and entertainment. The entertainer gives somebody something they already know they like. The artist gives something to the audience that the audience didn’t know they liked yet. And discovers that they liked it. 

Shimamoto: One of the things that made my jaw drop about this lineup of performers is the contrast between some of them. Looking at the trumpet players, for instance, I can’t imagine two players more different than Ambrose Akinmusire and Nate Wooley. 

Breskin: Maybe it’s me being slightly devilish or acting as a provocateur, just to set something in motion. The idea, from my curatorial point of view, is to try to create some rich and fragrant juxtapositions, and hopefully there’ll be some friction. And with friction, you get heat. With heat you get some light, you know. That’s the goal, whether it happens or not. So, while Ambrose and Nate are both amazing trumpet players, you know Nate’s very focused on extended techniques and maybe playing with his amplifier and doing all kinds of things that are more associated with the avant-garde in terms of contemporary classical music and “new music.” Whereas Ambrose might come more squarely from the jazz tradition, and yet he’s made a record with a string quartet and a rapper. 

Shimamoto: The Jen Shyu/Brandon Seabrook [acoustic instruments] pairing is particularly fascinating to me. Besides being an instrumentalist and singer, Jen is also a dancer. I’m wondering if she’ll incorporate movement into her performance. Perhaps not a good comparison, but it makes me think of Harry Partch—incorporating beautiful objects with movement and music. 

Breskin: I don’t know. Jen can do everything, as well as sing in eight languages. She very well may sing. And movement is obviously a key thing for her. Brandon moves a lot when he plays, too. The haptic quality of his playing is quite profound, and the physicality.  

That triggered something in my memory. There was a show at the Met in New York many years ago. Toward the very end of the show were some Bertoia sound sculptures. I knew they were there because as I walked through the galleries, I could hear the sound getting louder and louder. The Bertoias were up on a kind of pedestal, you weren’t supposed to touch them. But there’s something about these things. You have to touch them. You have to make them sound. 

Shimamoto: The spirit in the metal is calling out to you. 

Breskin: There’s something entrancing about [the Bertoias] because each one holds the potential to release sound. So there’s implicit desire for movement and captured movement, and then your movement releases the energy of the pieces that’s always built up inside. There’s always this latent energy that we’ll now be allowed a free range shot at. 

Shimamoto: One of the things all of the musicians will be dealing with is that the acoustic properties of the Bertoias in that [Nasher Hall] space are going to eat up certain areas of the frequency spectrum. They won’t know where those are going to be, and they might have to modify on the fly.  

Breskin: This is not a pristine environment, like a concert hall would be, so there will definitely be some sonic challenges. As Shannon Jackson used to say, “Nothing beats failure but a try.” We’re going to try to make some beautiful things happen here. History will sort out whether it’s interesting or not, but that shouldn’t ever get in anyone’s way from trying to make something happen. 

Shimamoto: Bertoia documented the sound of his tonals. He definitely knew that their sounds were of interest and would be of enduring value. 

Breskin: In an interview for the Archives of American Art, speaking of the 100 or 110 pieces in the Sonambient Barn, the interviewer says, “So, it’s like your orchestra in a way.” And Bertoia says, “… it could be perhaps a little more, but it may become an available musical tool for some artists who are seriously minded to explore some possibilities to express their personality.” In some ways, I feel like what we’re doing is what Bertoia had in mind 50 years ago: that there would always be this latent potential for these things that he put into the world, that he was aware might be used. It’s just taken 50 years. 

Shimamoto: Ron Saint Germain will be there recording everything. You two have been working together a long time. 

Breskin: The mix on [Ronald Shannon Jackson’s album] Man Dance was ’82. We’ve had a fruitful partnership over the last four decades. The thing that’s amazing about Saint is that he’s done everything—from Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains, Ornette Coleman, the Sam Rivers loft jazz sessions of the ’70s, to Soundgarden and Sonic Youth, solo piano recordings to Mick Jagger and U2 remixes, too. I don’t know anyone that has that breadth of experience. When we did [Kris Davis and Craig Taborn’s album] Octopus night after night, each night in a very different context, different city, different sets of pianos, and whatever, he recorded live-to-two-track on the fly. But he is also a guy who has spent 10 days mixing a single that ends up being a Top 10 single in the pop world. 

Shimamoto: How did programming these concerts compare to the process you go through when you’re making a record? 

Breskin: As a producer, I’ve never felt like an auteur. Given the kind of music I’ve been involved in, you don’t ever want to do that, because you’re foreclosing more possibilities than you’re opening up. I view my role as more of a facilitator trying to create situations, create play, and then be able to step back and let things happen. Programming ‘SCULPTING SOUND’ was not dissimilar. Both things are trying to set up people for success. You know it’s a broad brush because we’re not having to sequence tracks, we’re not having to build a narrative. We don’t have a lattice to build this on, there’s nothing preexisting, which is kind of the wonderful terror of doing it. But even that will turn out to be a narrative. Despite everyone’s best intentions. 

Shimamoto: I suspect there’ll be little precedent for this in most people’s experience who are going to be there. How do you expect them to respond? 

Breskin: It’s almost like a Rorschach test because it will be so reflective of who the person is, accepting the experience or not. I think some of it will be whether people can kind of let themselves go and let their previous expectations of what music is supposed to be kind of evaporate, and the more people can do that, I think the more positive the experience will be. 

Ken Shimamoto has written for publications including Fort Worth Weekly and the Dallas Observer. He played guitar in the proto-punk repertory band Stoogeaphilia and made banging and scraping noises in the experimental combo Hentai Improvising Orchestra. He blogs at The Stash Dauber and posts guitar videos on his YouTube channel. Ken lives in Fort Worth with his wife and their cat. 

Photos: (top): Nate Wooley. Photo: Frank Schemmann / Ambrose Akinmusire. Photo: courtesy of the artist / JD Allen. Photo: Bart Babinski. / Ingrid Laubrock. Photo: Caroline Mardok. / Kris Davis. Photo: Caroline Mardok. / Craig Taborn. Photo: Rue Sakayama. / (bottom): Nels Cline. Photo: Sean Ono Lennon. / Ben Monder. Photo: John Rogers. / Marcus Gilmore. Photo: OGATA Photography. / Dan Weiss. Photo: John Rogers. / Jen Shyu. Photo: Daniel Reichert. / Brandon Seabrook. Photo: Reuben Radding. 

Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
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