Lots of drone musicians have been called sound sculptors, but Harry Bertoia literally was one. The Italian-born American artist, who passed away in 1978 at age 63, remains well-known today as a sculptor and designer. In the last decade of his life, though, he also became a musician, pretty much by chance. While building large metal sculptures—mostly collections of tall rods standing upright on square bases—he discovered that they generated long, rich tones when struck. Enthralled by these sounds, he remodeled a barn in rural Pennsylvania to house over 90 of the pieces and began obsessively playing and recording them. A series of 11 privately-pressed LPs—released on Bertoia’s own Sonambient label—became highly sought-after among experimental music aficionados.
Last year, John Brien of Massachusetts label Important Records collected all of Bertoia’s albums in a CD box set, and began combing through the unreleased recordings that Bertoia left behind. In keeping with the format of the original LPs, Brien’s first release on the relaunched Sonambient label, Clear Sounds/Perfetta, is titled after single, uninterrupted tracks that appear on each side. And just like the very first Bertoia LP—1970’s Bellissima Bellissima Bellissima / Nova—this new record features a performance by Harry Bertoia on Side A and one by his brother Oreste (who assisted Harry in much of his playing and recording) on Side B.
The legend of the original Sonambient albums looms so large in sound-art circles that choosing their successor comes with some pressure. But Brien was up to the task, as Clear Sounds/Perfetta holds up well next to Bertoia’s previous releases, sharing their unique combination of tactile realism and otherworldly abstraction. Often the clanging and crashing of the metal is so tangible you can practically see Bertoia’s sculptures swaying and vibrating. But just as frequently, his massive sounds feel utterly removed from time and space—alien tones that have no real parallel in any music generated by conventional instruments.
Bertoia’s work reaches a frightening pitch in “Clear Sounds,” a recording he made in June of 1973. Amid a wealth of high-end ringing, sounds emerge that could be repurposed for a horror film, including buzzsaw-like noise mirrored by cavernous echoes and distant gong-like rumbles. There is a terrifying moment at the 12-minute mark that must be the disembodied cries of tortured ghosts. Yet “Clear Sounds” is also imbued with a calm, meditative tone, which persists even through the piece’s loudest, most skin-raising stretches.
Recorded in June of 1971, Oreste Bertoia’s contribution, “Perfetta,” is not as immediately striking or oddly intriguing as “Clear Sounds.” But Oreste’s style is busier and more tonally varied, and there’s much to be hypnotized by in his rippling static and quiet-to-loud drones. Whether you actually are hypnotized by this music or simply find it a neat sonic curiosity seems on the surface like an either/or question. But one of the attractions in Harry Bertoia’s work—and perhaps what makes it still sound so alive 40 years later—is that it’s simultaneously a creative marvel and a captivating experience. Clear Sounds/Perfetta continues and extends that multi-layered effect, while stoking the fires of anticipation for what’s still to come from Bertoia’s archives.