x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bill Fontana on making the sand sing

The sound artist Bill Fontana brings a special installation, titled Acoustiscal Visions and Desert Soundings, to Abu Dhabi Festival, and tells us about his experiences gathering the recordings in the capital's deserts.

Bill Fontana in Liwa Desert making his sound recordings for Abu Dhabi Festival. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival
Bill Fontana in Liwa Desert making his sound recordings for Abu Dhabi Festival. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival

Imagine the sound of waves crashing and shifting small rocks onshore. Now imagine the same sound – but in the UAE desert.

When the American sound sculptor Bill Fontana first captured desert sounds for a commissioned project in Abu Dhabi last year, he was astonished to find that the shifting sands of the dunes sounded like the sea.

“I had done some research from scientific journals on singing and quaking sand dunes before I began,” says Fontana, 66. “I thought we would go into the desert and find such a dune.”

For his initial study, he placed two vibration sensors – accelerometers – inside a sand dune at a moderate depth, and found it to be “alive with sounds”.

“The sound of thousands and millions of grains of sand shifting and moving over these vibration sensors produced a sound that was very much like the sound of the sea. That was the voice of the desert I was looking for.”

Fontana calls his piece Acoustical Visions and Desert Soundings, a collection of sounds he’s gathered from the Emirates for a sculpture that will premiere at the Abu Dhabi Festival on Friday at the Emirates Palace Gallery.

“I wanted to make something that was special for this environment and this location,” he explains. “I was thinking about the history here. All this development is quite new and so I was looking for something more timeless, something that is more the soul of the place.”

Fontana has a penchant for unearthing hidden sounds and exhibiting them at locations where people are forced to pay attention. He began gathering and experimenting with sounds in the 1970s after reading music and philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York. He has turned many an architectural structure into a musical instrument for his art – the dissonance created by isolating the sound from its source creates a captivating installation.

“When you take an object from everyday life and put it in a gallery, or when something is taken out of context, suddenly it takes on a new meaning and is worth looking at.

“No one pays much attention to the sounds we live with everyday. People walk around with their headphones on, listening to music. I have made it a practice to explore how musical phenomena exists in the everyday world we live in.”

Armed with recording equipment such as microphones, hydrophones and vibration sensors, Fontana collects sounds from natural landscapes, such as the sea, as well as man-made structures, such as bridges and buildings. The result is a systematic science-meets-art innovation.

“I create a dialogue between one place and another place. It is never random,” he says.

Fontana has travelled around the world, creating acoustical visions at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (2012), Speeds of Time (2004) with the sounds of the clockwork mechanics and bells of Big Ben in London; and Pigeon Soundings (2007) at the Kolumba Museum in Germany.

“Because I have been doing this for a long time, I have developed certain instincts about what sounds I’ll get,” he says.

But some rare sounds, which happen once in several thousand years, have offered breathtaking surprises. Fontana recorded such sounds in a rainforest in south-eastern Australia in 1976 and will be playing them at the exhibition in the capital.

“I documented the effects of the total solar eclipse on the habitants of the rainforest. It was spring and there were lots of songbirds, which do not all sing at the same time. In the minutes leading up to the eclipse, the light became weird and the trees’ shadows began to sparkle and shimmer. It was suddenly dark and we had no sense of time. At that very moment it seemed like all the birds and animals had something to say about it, they all started calling at the same time.”

His only disappointment is that he wasn’t working with multimedia back then to record the phenomenon.

He introduced the visual element to his art for a project at the Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, and “spent hours sitting quietly, so as to not disturb the recording”.

“I found myself gazing at something or the other. So I started bringing a camera to gaze with me,” he says. “My first formal video is of one of the thousands of temple bells. All the sounds you hear are happening just outside the frame. I found that quite interesting.”

Sounds trapped in large structures fascinate Fontana the most.

“It is this whole idea of the urban environment being this really complex musical information system with all these different kinds of sounds happening at the same time, creating artwork out of it, listening to it very selectively and experiencing it in a museum.”

And so his ongoing project at Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research on recording sounds from the Large Hadron Collider, is the most exciting yet.

“The title, Acoustic Time Travel, is perhaps something from a sci-fi movie,” says the artist, who won the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@Cern Artists Residency Prize. “I want to make a musical instrument out of the collider and see how I can excite it and monitor how sound travels.” The piece will be unveiled on the 60th anniversary of Cern in September.

At the exhibition in Abu Dhabi, Fontana will also be showcasing a sound installation from recordings at the Chesil Beach on the south-west coast of Dorset in England, to draw parallels with those collected from the desert.

“I thought it would be engaging to make that kind of acoustic journey from the voice of the desert sound like the sea and then the sound of the sea itself being similar to it.”

And has he come across any sound that has made him tune out?

“To me, noise is a question of personal choice because the word technically means sound with no information in it,” he says.

“If I choose to listen to something, whatever it is, I can find something interesting in almost anything.”

• Fontana’s sound sculpture debuts on March 21 at the Emirates Palace Gallery. His exhibition runs until April 20. For information on the venues, times and ticket prices, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae

aahmed@thenational.ae