The Sound Of Silence

April 1, 2014
I’ve never quite noticed how intrusive the constant droning of an air-conditioning unit is until I am sat across the table from Bill Fontana – the world’s leading sound artist. The softly spoken 67-year-old American composer and artist, has built an international reputation for his pioneering experiments in capturing uncommon sounds and relocating them to unexpected areas. Among his works – that have been exhibited in many of the world’s most famous museums and galleries – he has recorded the rhythmic sounds of the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; wrapped Paris’ Arc de Triomphe in the sound of the sea; captured the internal sound of a Buddhist temple bell and made music from the particle experiments in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. We meet in the Emirates Palace hotel following the announcement of Fontana’s involvement in this month’s Abu Dhabi Festival, where he will be revealing a site-specific 'sound sculpture' of the UAE capital. It seems like there is only one place to start… TATE PORTRAIT

So Bill, what is a sound sculpture?

A sound sculpture is a form of art that I have been working on since the 1970s. It basically requires taking sound from one location and relocating it into a different space.

And where is the art in that?

I feel that one of the jobs of an artist is to get people to take notice of themselves being in a certain situation. I consider looking at how sound has the ability to transform people’s perceptions of where they are, as an important part of my job.

What first peaked your interest in sound?

When I was younger, I used to go to a music conservatory in Cleveland. It was there I became interested in how the act of listening was, in its own way, a method of making music. I noticed that that the more I focused on the natural sound, the more I recognised a natural pattern, so I started exploring and recording it. The fashion at the conservatory at this time was called Post Surreal Composition, which was based on the idea that music – in order to be significant – had to be complex. The fact that it was interesting to hear or not didn’t so much matter – its complexity was what was important. I rejected that idea. At the same time, in New York, there was a movement that was happening, it was a minimalist movement where repetition and continuous musical compositions were being performed. To me that was very appealing, but I decided to take it a step further, and concentrate on the sounds of the environment and the world around us. The idea that nature in its raw state is very musical, and that the most simple of things can actually be quite complex.

Is hearing an under appreciated sense?

I think that in our culture, people have learnt not to listen. I have two teenage children and they are always walking around with their headphones in – it has become a cultural thing. I listen to the world around me, and in a strange way I believe that we live in a world where there is an acoustic illiteracy, so as an artist I am pushing against that.

What do you mean by acoustic illiteracy?

It is the inability to hear sound as sound, and not as noise. Noise by definition is sound without any meaning. That is really a personal choice, the more you put into what you hear the more you get into it. Do you know what an antiquate chamber is?


It is a room without acoustics. It is completely silent and sound absorbing. Companies use it to test the frequency of loud speakers. If you go into one and try and make the biggest sound you can make, you’ll find that it is almost nothing. The sound dies the moment that it is made. The reason that happens is because every sound you make actually reflects the space around you, so when you think about noise and sound in an environment it is very descriptive of where you are.

Do you have an example of this?

In 1994 I did a project in Paris to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The Ministry of Culture invited me over to create a project with the site being the Arc de Triomphe. Because the landmark is a war memorial, I went to the coast of Normandy (the site of the D-Day landing) and recorded the sound of the sea. I then took those recordings and wrapped the Arc de Triomphe in the sound of the sea, by strategically placing 70 loud speakers in and around the monument. Normally, it is one of the noisiest places in Paris, but with the sound of the sea playing over it, you couldn't hear all the traffic and cars anymore. It wasn't because the sound was loud, it was because the sound of the sea is a 'white noise' that has psycho acoustic masking properties, so it basically hides the sounds of cars.  Now, the sound of the sea is not a strange sound but when you put it on a monument in a metropolitan area, then you completely change people's perception of that icon.

So context is very important to your work?

It is everything. With my upcoming project in Abu Dhabi I wanted to make something very special – as it is my first project in the Arab world. I wanted to make something that captured the very soul of the place; something that was fundamental to the country, and it brought me to thinking about the desert. What if the desert had a voice? What would it sound like?

I think you’re in a better position to answer that than me!

[Laughs] It actually sounds a bit like the sea. It is a very primal sound – perfect to transport it into an urban environment. To me, sound has a spiritual dimension to it. One of the things that interests me is how sound can connect everything around it. It is the one medium that connects multiple realities of a place. If you go into a dense urban environment, there are a lot of different things going on and if you stop to listen and analyse it, you are hearing all the energy of the place and it is the one medium that unifies the experience in a particular moment in time. Personally I think that is something significant.

You recently had a stint as the Artist in Residence at CERN in Switzerland. Tell me about that…

I was working on a project that sounds a bit like a science fiction movie. The title of it was Acoustic Time Travel. What I was trying to do is turn the world’s largest man-made machine – the large hadron collider – into a musical instrument. I did different experiments to see how sounds lived inside that machine. Fontana bridge

Would you say you are trying to find art in science?

The problem I have with the art world is that there is so much ego, and that the more famous people become the more egocentric they become, with me, the ego part isn't very interesting it is more the ideas that I am interested in. At CERN people are studying some real fundamental questions, such as the birth of the universe, how it exists, what was the Big Bang, was there anything before the Big Bang, are there multiple universes. Some very fundamental questions. It is the sense of this collective effort and the transparency show that what is important is the questions and not the egos of the people studying it. I find the art world is the opposite. I would not want to be seen as an artist in that sense, I am more interested in the value of the experience that I create.

Do you revel in silence?

The nice thing about a quiet space is enables you to hear details. It is hard for me to turn off my hearing. For example when I am staying in a hotel, and I have very active neighbours! To see more of Bill Fontana's work, visit