Extra Credit: LASER - May 2nd

Although it has been more than a month since I attended the Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) on May 2nd, it has most certainly not been far from my mind. I know it has become customary for me to always mention how our class sessions/events have boggled my thinking, but, absolutely nothing compares to this event… more specifically, Bill Fontana’s work. (I can now say this confidently since we have had our last class session.)

Figure 1: What Does LASER Hold in Store? from: Jillien Malott. “LASER.” 2019.

As discussed in my previous blogs, I have been learning American Sign Language for approximately four years, and Deaf Studies has been near and dear to my heart. Despite this, I had never really thought of sound as art... until Fontana’s presentation last month. I had never considered what ambient silence sounds like … how loud and almost perfectly orchestrated it is.

Fontana’s work (at least the pieces he mentioned during his LASER presentation) focuses on the creation of music through microphones placed on bells, sculptures, and other architectural pieces. The microphones record the structure’s everyday vibrations and the sounds that accompany its environment. The idea seems so simple, yet the outcome is truly phenomenal. For instance, I find his “Harmonic Bridge” (see the video here) sounding eerily similar to something you would find in a suspenseful scene of a blockbuster hit. The behind-the-scenes gallery video (see the video here) of his “Silent Echoes” piece really illuminates how the entire process works and shows that my reaction is within the norm for all his patrons. In my opinion, Fontana’s results are even more mesmerizing than something created on an actual musical instrument - when listening to his projects, I could only think of a single word … “whimsical.”

To say I was caught off guard when Fontana played his work it at the LASER event would be an understatement. I still get chills when listening to pieces like “Echoes of Silence,” which captures just how loud silence is - the piece records the vibrations of five Buddhist temple bells (you can hear them here).

Figure 2: “Echoes of Silence” Bells from: Resoundings.org, http://resoundings.org/Pages/Silent_Echoes.html. Accessed 11 June 2019.

After scouring his portfolio, I must say my absolute favorite piece of Fontana’s is his latest sound sculpture project: “Harmonic Time Travel.” Recently, Fontana went to the Beethoven House in Bonn, Germany. As the name implies, this is actually Beethoven’s birthplace, and pianos he played are stored there. Fontana attached his highly specialized microphones to the strings of one piano, and he then had an individual play a Beethoven piece on the piano across the room. The result? The strings of the un-played piano actually picked up the vibrations from the other piano’s music, creating a “ghosting” of the song. I truly wanted to share this experience with the class, but it seems this amazing piece is not yet available for public internet consumption.

Figures 3 and 4: Fontana Playing Harmonic Time Travel (top) and Fontana Discussing Harmonic Time Travel (bottom) from: Malott, Jillien. “LASER - Fontana Presentation.” 2019.

Prior to conducting research for this blog, I was unfamiliar with the term “sound sculptures,” yet, after some digging, I have realized I am most certainly familiar with what they describe. Sound sculptures are meant to be a sensory experience. It stems from the belief that art should be approached visually and audibly. This shift from art being solely visual made me think about one of the most widely discussed “fads” of today - ASMR.

ASMR is the acronym for autonomous sensory meridian response. To put it simply, ASMR is the term to describe those tingles you get when you hear a certain sound (if you don’t know what I am talking about, then you don’t have ASMR!) (Lopez). There are thousands of “artists” who curate content for specific forms of ASMR. If sound sculptures are art, is ASMR art too? It engages the listener with numerous senses (there is often a visual, video component as well as an auditory one), and it conjures up an array of emotions. Different ASMR “artists” provide differing experiences for their patrons, and it all comes down to personal preference. Additionally, ASMR is being viewed as a therapeutic, meditative tool for individuals to use. All these descriptors can easily describe art generally, and, if you would prefer, sound sculptures like Fontana’s more specifically. Some individuals have even brought ASMR to galleries, such as “The Oddly Satisfying Spa” exhibition (Mufson). I still have yet to decide if ASMR itself is an art, but, after hearing Fontana’s work and hearing the other LASER participants, I think we might very well be seeing ASMR exhibits as the latest edition to the sound sculpture categorization.

Works Cited

Baschet, Bernard. “Structures Sonores.” Sound Sculpture, edited by John Grayson, 1975, pp. 1-12.

“Bill Fontana - Harmonic Bridge - Tate Modern - 2006.” Resoundings.org, http://resoundings.org/Pages/Harmonic_Bridge1.htm.  Accessed 11 June 2019.

Fontana, Bill. Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER), 2 May 2019, UCLA. Event Presentation.

Lopez, German. “ASMR, Explained: Why Millions of People are Watching YouTube Videos of Someone Whispering.” VOX, 25 May 2018, https://www.vox.com/2015/7/15/8965393/asmr-video-youtube-autonomous-sensory-meridian-response. Accessed 11 June 2019.

Mufson, Beckett. “This ASMR-Inspired Art is Excessively Satisfying.” VICE, 30 May 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/435a9w/the-oddly-satisfying-spa-asmr-art. Accessed 12 June 2019.

“Silent Echoes by Bill Fontana.” Resoundings.org, http://resoundings.org/Pages/Silent_Echoes.html. Accessed 11 June 2019.

“Silent Echoes Launch - Bill Fontana, GoMA.” Vimeo, uploaded by Glasgow UNESCO City of Music, 2013, https://vimeo.com/64639508. Accessed 11 June 2019.