There’s a marked element in the design schools born from the Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century that actively seeks to harmonize the natural with the artificial, and which is easily seen in the kinds of furniture produced by the Bauhaus and other modernist designers of the first half of the 20th century. This element is not a rationalization of nature’s forms, but an attempt to follow nature’s own ‘reason’ to elucidate the humane out of the mechanical stridency of modernity. Harry Bertoia was one such designer, and his sculptural sound installations reflect an integral approach in which music is sourced in sheer matter – an ideal construct emanating naturally from a material base.
Along with his brother Oreste, who is the author behind the second half of this album, Bertoia explored this junction for many, many years through a series of recordings he usefully termed Sonambient, and which became synonymous with all of his productions as a kind of record label. Recently, the great Important Records has acquired a collection of these albums and has embarked upon a project that is as historically relevant as it is outright interesting, in the sense that these pieces (the first, “Clear Sounds”, from 1973, the second, “Perfetta”, from 1971) constitute a restored archival example of the experimentation that culminated in ambient music in the late 1970s. However, Bertoia’s slightly differing term is significant, if only because it refers to a music that does not rely entirely on electronics, which is to say an ultra-modern source of sound meant to create new sounds impossible to find in nature. Instead, sonambient poses the relationship between music and sound as one that does not transcend the logic of the natural; it does not aim towards the future, it aims towards the here and now, sounds unheard not because they are cutting-edge but because they advance another perspective upon matter as old as the earth itself.
This is not to say that Bertoia did not practice any kind of manipulation – which he did, through tapes – but that music like “Clear Sounds”, with a title so succinctly to the point, aims at an integral experience of the everyday and the experimental, the coherent emergence of a sound whose source is not only tangible but almost obvious (metals), and which is nevertheless unexpected. Bertoia might claim authorship, but just like with field recordings later in the century, there is a distinct harmonization of the result, a collaborative aspect for which there is no other co-author but the materials and the forces or elements with which they are played (wind, percussion…). This interplay creates ambiences that cannot be pinned down to a certain landscape, but neither can they be entirely imagined as an abstracted construction.
Both pieces are full of echoes, silences, short and long sounds that rumble so gravely that they would often seem to come from beneath the ground. The very minerality of the harmonies, as if we were lone explorers lost in an abyss of caves, lends the album a feeling of immeasurable vastness, their ‘clarity’ and ‘perfection’ referring not to the conventional parting lights of the sky, but to the grand obscurity of an underground lake, the striking organic qualities of stalactites, an unending darkness that proves no danger and hides nothing except whatever it is your mind can find within each metallic resonance.
To anyone interested in the history of ambient music, sound installations or sound art in general, Important Records’ historical recovery is a must. To everyone else, it’s definitely a different experience of listening, tied to ambient and field recordings, but with another intent altogether. In short – you need this in your collection. (David Murrieta)