Good Vibrations

Conversation | Olivia Block and Luke Fowler

Artists Olivia Block and Luke Fowler listen in on the sonic life of Harry Bertoia’s sounding sculptures. 

As part of its Sightings series, and as a complement to the Harry Bertoia retrospective, the Nasher Sculpture Center commissioned renowned media artist and composer Olivia Block to make a new sound installation from recordings of Bertoia’s sounding sculptures in the exhibition Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life. Block’s recent work reflects her interest in time, wind, shadows, and the acoustic properties of physical materials like metal and wood. The new composition, titled The Speed of Sound in Infinite Copper, highlights the sounding sculptures’ ability to create a palpable sonic space while allowing the audience to activate the sonic experience by moving about the room. Block complements the changing aural environment projecting the silhouettes of the movement of the sounding sculptures across the floor and up the walls of the Corner Gallery at the Nasher.   

Here for The Nasher, Block joins Scottish artist Luke Fowler in conversation about her new work. In 2018, Fowler was the first artist to create a sound work for the Nasher Sculpture Center, Gone Reflections (Part 2), a composition made by directing sine waves of similar frequency ranges, ascending in one and descending in the other, through the collection’s massive Naum Gabo sculpture, Constructed Head No. 2, and Barnett Newman’s Here III. Both made of stainless steel, the unique forms of each work affected the way the sine waves moved and reverberated through them, creating unexpected tones.

Luke Fowler: My first experiences of listening to sculptures was of mute sculptures—you know, sound from sculptures that weren't intended to be sonic. And I had this period around 2006 when I was on residency in Germany, and I would go around sticking contact mics onto sculptures and listening to the sound of the world filtered through some modernist metal sculpture. And that was absolutely fascinating because there was this parallel with the way that I was doing photography or film, the way I was thinking about the way that we edit, the way that the edit creates this sort of temporal compression, and also the way that certain lenses can show you the world from the perspective of an animal, or a child, or whatever … or a bird. And so, this idea of contact listening really interested and excited me because I could hear the internal sound, the internal life of something that you would ordinarily be inaudible, right? 

So that was my whole introduction into listening to sculptures. And then when I came to the Nasher [to do my exhibition], I was influenced by David Tudor and Alvin Lucier and Arp—rest in peace—because I was thinking about placing these drivers onto the sculptures and sending sound waves through them that then made [the sculptures] vibrate at specific sound resonant frequencies. And to me, that was kind of the inverse of what I'd been doing in this passive role of, like, you know, placing the stethoscope onto the patient. This was more like giving the patient an electric shock. 

Olivia Block: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. 

Fowler: [laughter] 

Block: First of all, I love this idea of listening to this internal world of the sculpture. Especially because whenever I see something like a Richard Serra, that's all I can think about. All I want to do is hit that sculpture! Like just … 

Fowler: … a massive gong. 

Block: Yeah! You can't just look at something like that and not imagine what that would sound like, right? So, I love this idea of hearing that. It's also almost like the sculpture itself is listening. You're hearing what the sculpture is hearing, uncovering that hidden world of sound inside this material. And then it's funny because your piece at the Nasher and then what I'm planning to do with the [Bertoia sounding] sculptures is almost like we are coming at this idea from completely different directions, because your piece started with sine waves. And you're inserting these sine waves into the metal so that you can sonify this metal and people can actually hear how the material itself is resonating at certain frequencies with the sine waves. And so, it’s almost like you are making them sing. Or the sculptures are starting to sing with the transducers, or exciters. 

Fowler: Drivers, yeah. Exciters. 

Block: Yeah, exactly. And, in my case the recordings of the sounding sculptures start with these incredibly complex overtone structures. It's almost like it’s all overtones. There's no, even, semblance of a sine wave there.  

Fowler: So are they odd or even harmonics? Can you even say? 

Block: Well, you can't say because it's completely different depending on how you touch them. It depends on which combination of which rod at which distance. Initially, my approach was to find the resonant frequency of each of the sculptures that I was working with, but then I realized that was completely impossible because it completely depends on how the sculpture is behaving with itself. If you're just getting three of these rods touching each other, that resonance and that overtone structure is going to be very different than if two of these other rods are vibrating. So, it's almost like this kaleidoscope you can't quite focus on. So, I decided instead to use my ears. Each of these sculptures was absolutely singing one tone louder than everything else. Each of them has this ringing tone, and so I was just listening for that. And each sound sequence from each one of these sculptures starts with a complexity and then ends with one tone. So, it almost like ends with the sine wave, whereas yours starts with the sine wave and it ends with this complexity, this material complexity. Mine starts with the material complexity and ends with the single tone. So, it’s almost like the exact reverse or something like a mirror image, which is cool. 

Fowler: It's almost like additive versus subtractive synthesis. ... What is so fascinating about invented instruments is that there are no conventional ways of playing them, right? 

Block: Yes. 

Fowler: I'll tell you a story about it. Do you know the artist Richard Youngs? 

Block: Yes, and you've worked with him, yeah? 

Fowler: Yeah, we collaborate quite a lot. And I went to Richard talking about being an autodidact. At one point, I decided that I wanted to be able to sing. I wanted to sing in pitch. 

Block: Cool. [laughter] And does that not come easily to you normally? Or? 

Fowler: Ah, well, I've never sung in my life. And I just decided that I wanted to be able to sing. And so, I took what I thought would be singing lessons with Richard. And he said I was kind of like his partner, who, if he puts his hand on the nape of her neck, could hit the notes. She could feel the vibration if he was singing the same thing, then reach vibration through this way of touching. 

Block: That's beautiful. 

Fowler: He said, "Your problem is pitching." I said, "What's the problem with it?" He said, "You're not doing it." 

Fowler and Block: [laughter] 

Block: So then, what did you do? Did he try this thing where he was touching the back of your neck? 

Fowler: Yeah, so then he told me about this thing, the touching. And I think what I am saying is that you know there is a conventional way of singing and with pitch there is a conventional way of bowing a cello, in a way that the intonation of the instrument comes through. The note comes through rather than the unintended sound, right? 

Block: Right. 

Fowler: But with these invented instruments, like Bertoia, there is no conventional way of playing them. And there are no instructions on how to play them. So how? Was that liberating or scary? Or? 

Block: It was a little bit of both. I know that you also make instruments, and I was listening to those recordings with the kind of string instrument that you were making. And it was interesting because I did notice it was more of a metallic sound than like a cello would be. I mean it was like you could hear the tambour of the material, which is my interest too. Like, my interest in something like a pipe organ isn't in being virtuosic about the playing of it. It's about the instrument itself. It's about how those materials and the architecture around the materials make the sound, make the instrument sing. And so, I think the same is true for the [sounding sculptures]. And I actually felt a conflicting desire to both play the instrument, almost like a percussion instrument, and then on the other hand just to activate the thing once and let itself play out. And so, I actually ended up going with the latter of the two because I felt like the complexity of the [sculptures] was already so interesting that I just wanted to set it into motion, basically. Each one I just set in motion and watched how long the decay took, and how long it took for the motion to stop. So, I think I made a decision at some point. We were recording and we [had] mallets and we were banging on the lower part of the rods at one point, which is a beautiful sound. But I felt like it almost narrowed down the feeling of it into this kind of history of percussion, and I didn't want to do that. It made it smaller to me somehow, like it wasn't about these creatures anymore. It was just more about the performance of it. So, then I just decided to let the creatures speak. 

olivia block plays harry bertoia's sonambient sculptures at the nasher sculpture center

Fowler: Bertoia himself says that there's no way of notating these. He said notation is out the window with these creatures because they're not single notes, for starters, they're not pitching single notes. They're clusters. They're microtonal clusters … You know, this microtonal dissonant structure, and the way that he plays them is the way that he plays them. And so, that's what's really exciting for me about the liberation of these sculptures by you working with them. Or by them being, like you talked about, them being played like an aeolian harp, like by the wind. 

And did you feel like you could transcend the legacy of Bertoia?  

Block: Not at all. I can't, I didn't even try. In fact, I felt like this piece is really about his absence. There literally is not going to be a sculpture present [in the gallery]. And [Bertoia] is not present, and just thinking about the absence of the sculpture in the space and creating this place where the listener fills the gaps of that absence, in a way. So, I sidestepped that feeling of his legacy. I can't even shoulder this at all. Because it's a lot. I chalked this up to getting a little older in my life and thinking about just like, [sigh] remembering people is important. That's all. There's nothing more. There doesn't have to be. I mean, it is more complex than that. Like in terms of the ideas and the sounds and the presence and everything, but I think I am just beginning to understand connections and how art travels through time. I was just like constantly feeling like “keep it simple … don't try to comment too much on this legacy or anything like that.” 

Fowler: There's something really beautiful [about this], and very, for me, connected to oral history and to traditional oral culture. In Scotland, there's a strong history of singing and telling stories. There was this famous storyteller called Duncan Williamson, and he said that when you tell a story you are standing on the shoulders of your ancestors, and of everyone that's told the story before you. And it's your duty not to fuck that up, not to fuck that story up. You know? And, not to change it. I mean, you add your own personality to it, but you’re not completely changing the plot or the characters. You're just speaking through the story and the ancestors are speaking through your voice. 

Block: Yes, exactly. It does feel like that, especially because Harry Bertoia seemed to think of these [sculptures and their sonambience] in such a metaphysical way. I didn't get the sense from reading about him that he was super conceptual about these pieces. He was just like, “this is beautiful … I've tapped into something cosmic.” And so, in a way it's almost like thinking back to this origin story of the maker of these creatures, these Sonambient creatures, where he drops that piece of metal on the floor and hears it and is awakened to this possibility. And then, like your story about listening, all of a sudden, he’s awakened into the sound of this sculpture that isn't making any sound. I studied anthropology, and it reminds me of all the tribal creation stories made from sound and light and sky and earth, and how layers of things are built into meaning from that. I am not as interested in the history of modern sculpture in that sense in this project. It's much more about this, the music of the spheres and the origin [stories]. 

Fowler: So, I've got one last question for you. Obviously, there was this exciting moment in the 1970s when Bertoia's sculptures were being placed in public buildings, and I feel like you know that moment has passed [and that they are] being decommissioned. You know, it’s not fashionable to have a sound sculpture. Why do you think that is? Why do you think his work became unfashionable or fell out of favor? 

olivia block performs a projector test for The Speed of Sound in Infinite CopperBlock: That's a good question. I'm not sure that the sound sculptures ever did gain that kind of moment. I mean, people did buy them … but just based upon my knowledge, the sculptures didn't behave the way that they thought they were supposed to. ... I think it was sort of like there was a tension between where these objects should be placed in terms of the visual aesthetics of the architecture that surrounded [them], you know like: “Where should they be inside? Should they be outside? How should the sound sculpture be sounding? Should it be from the wind? Or should it be from people coming and playing them?” There was never any clear kind of direction about that because I think, on one hand, some people are like, "Yes, you play. You put your hands on these. That's what he would have done. That's what he would have wanted.” But then there's kind of like another opinion of like, “Do not touch these. These are works of art.” Which is why this whole thing—this Bertoia retrospective and your piece at the Nasher, too—is so cool. The fact that [the Nasher] is taking this whole sound aspect of these sculptures on is really cool. 

Fowler: Yeah, taking it seriously … 

Also, I just wanted to say that I really love the way you're using light in the piece.  

Block: Yeah, I mean, it’s impossible to ignore that. That's such a strong part of Bertoia’s work. Actually … because he was in the Midwest, and so thinking about tall grass moving and the light through it. When you see that light through grass or trees moving, it’s such a special thing. … That was the other aspect of those pieces that was just mind blowing. Just the way [they were] letting in the light, the movement was just really beautiful, so, part of the piece that I will do is just the shadows [from these sculptures].  

Fowler: Yeah, in absence of a score [the shadows] become like a score. Don't they? 

Block: Absolutely. 

Fowler: And it’s the same seeing the rods from the top, seeing that perspective and then seeing how they interact and move. They're like a swarm of bees. The material is an illustration of what they're doing sonically. This again, this sort of sonicfication … gets to that vibration, you know? 

Olivia Block is a renowned media artist and composer who, over the past 30 years, has forged an influential career in experimental music and sound installation. In addition to a discography of over 20 solo and collaborative recordings, Block has performed and exhibited around the world including installations and premieres in Europe, North America, and Asia at venues such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; and La Biennale di Venezia 52nd International Festival of Contemporary Music.  

Luke Fowler is a Scottish artist, filmmaker, and musician who has developed a practice that is, at the same time, singular and collaborative, poetic and political, structural and documentary, archival and deeply human. With an emphasis on communities of people, outward thinkers, and the history of the left, his 16 mm films tell the stories of alternative movements in Britain, from psychiatry to photography to music to education. While some of his early films deal with music and musicians as subjects, in later works sound itself becomes a key concern. 

TOP and MIDDLE: Bertoia’s sound sculptures arranged at the Nasher Sculpture Center. 2022 Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy of the artist. 

BOTTOM: Olivia Block (b. 1970). The Speed of Sound in Infinite Copper, 2022. Sound and video installation.  

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