Sound Sculptor Harry Bertoia Created Musical, Meditative Art

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The late Harry Bertoia is most famous for the iconic chairs that he designed in the 1950s with their scooped wire backs and seats and simple wire legs. But he was also a renowned sculptor and spent decades of his life creating works that make sounds. Now those pieces are getting a fresh appreciation with new recordings and a museum exhibition. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Next to a dirt road in eastern Pennsylvania, there's a weathered wooden barn. It doesn't look like much, but when you step inside, Harry Bertoia's barn is equal parts art gallery, recording studio and sanctuary.

VAL BERTOIA: It was almost church-like, very private, almost sacred to enter to hear these sounds.

ROSE: Val Bertoia is Harry's son. He also worked as his father's assistant and helped build some of the sculptures that are still carefully arranged around the renovated barn.

V. BERTOIA: OK, we'll choose this one. This one I think is, in my own opinion, one of Harry's very best tones or tonal qualities in a sound piece.

ROSE: It's a cluster of thin metal rods, dozens of them with small weights on top. They look like metallic cattails swaying in a breeze.

V. BERTOIA: When I move them, I'm just bringing all the weights together and it moves on its own very beautifully with good sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONAMBIENT SCULPTURE)

ROSE: More than 90 of these sculptures are arranged throughout the barn. Harry Bertoia coined the term sonambient to describe them and the sounds they make.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONAMBIENT SCULPTURE)

ROSE: The sculptor was born Arieto Bertoia in Italy in 1915 and moved to Michigan as a teenager, where he went to college with some future heavy hitters - architect Eero Saarinen and designers Charles and Ray Eames. Bertoia was part of the team that designed one of the Eames's first bent plywood chairs.

Bertoia eventually moved to Pennsylvania where he designed his famous chairs for the furniture company Knoll. But Bertoia's real love was sculpture, says his friend Beverly Twitchell, who taught art history at Marshall University in West Virginia.

BEVERLY TWITCHELL: And as he worked with metal, he found occasionally that he would bend a rod and it would make a noise. And gradually he kept thinking, well, I wonder what would happen if you did this or I wonder what would happen if you did that. What kind of sounds might come out?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY BERTOIA: I now make sculptures that can move in the wind or that can be touched and played like an instrument.

ROSE: That's Harry Bertoia in an interview that aired on public television a few years before he died in 1978. Once Bertoia discovered that sculptures could make sound, he became obsessed. He built hundreds of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. BERTOIA: My works are all over the world. But for years, I've kept my best pieces at home w,hich is really my laboratory.

ROSE: In his barn, Bertoia would play the sculptures for small invited audiences or by himself late at night. And he recorded them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONAMBIENT SCULPTURE)

ROSE: The sounding pieces never got that much attention from the wider art world until now. They'll be part of an exhibition in May at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. And there's a new 11-CD collection of Bertoia's recordings put out by Important Records. John Brien runs the label. He's trying to share the feeling of Bertoia's barn with a wider audience.

JOHN BRIEN: It's a quasi-religious experience. It's meditative. Like, the physiological effect of vibrations sends you inside of yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONAMBIENT SCULPTURE)

ROSE: But it's hard for a recording to convey the full experience of hearing and seeing the sculptures together in exactly the environment Bertoia intended. How long those sculptors can stay in his barn however is an open question.

CELIA BERTOIA: It's almost too late. We've got to move the collection before it is too late.

ROSE: Celia Bertoia is the sculptor's daughter. She started a foundation to preserve her father's legacy. Celia says the barn is not a suitable place to store his sculptures, partly because of security and partly because it's just not equipped for big crowds.

C. BERTOIA: So one thought that we've had is to have part or all of the sonambient collection moved to a public museum somewhere and try to re-create that space. It would make it so much more accessible. I feel that I have to do this, that I've got to protect my father's works.

ROSE: Both Celia and her brother Val insist they're trying to carry out their father's wishes, but they have very different ideas of what that means. Celia is not happy with the way her brother managed the estate and she filed a lawsuit seeking control of her share. Val still lives in the Pennsylvania house where he grew up. And he works in the same sculpture studio his father used to run.

V. BERTOIA: This is Harry's last gong that was slightly unfinished and wonderful sounding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONAMBIENT SCULPTURE)

ROSE: Val Bertoia says his father wanted the sculptures to stay where they are.

V. BERTOIA: When I worked with Harry in the 1970s, that was his intent, to keep everything as is throughout his life and, of course, throughout my life and on. We feel it's more of a historical landmark and gravesite, that it would be kept almost museum-like, very precious.

ROSE: For a while, Val Bertoia tried to fight his sister's lawsuit, but he ran out of money and now seems resigned to the idea that many of his father's sculptures will be leaving the barn as soon as this fall. But Val Bertoia says he'll continue to offer tours of the family's property where his father is buried. The grave is marked by one of his sculptures, a huge one-ton gong. Joel Rose, NPR News, Valley, Penn.

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