Sound artist and composer Olivia Block with the "sonambient sculpture" by Harry Bertoia that inspired her new Pritzker Pavilion installation Credit: Andrea Bauer

For a brief period after its completion in 1974, the Standard Oil Building at 200 E. Randolph (now the Aon Center, previously the Amoco Building) was the tallest skyscraper in Chicago. The following year the Sears Tower was finished, claiming the crown for itself, but that June designer, sculptor, and sound artist Harry Bertoia unveiled a massive public artwork, commissioned in ’74, in the plaza of the Standard Oil Building. His “sonambient sculpture” originally sat within a 4,000-square-foot reflecting pool and consisted of 11 vertical rows of copper and brass rods ranging from four to 16 feet in height, arranged at right angles or in parallel. Because the rods are closely spaced and slightly flexible, strong winds or pushes from visitors cause them to brush together, creating a rich spatialized field of chiming, shimmering sounds.

Credit: Logan Javage

The Bertoia sculpture’s metal rods in motion, with an excerpt of raw field recordings Block made to prepare for “Sonambient Pavilion”

Compared with other monolithic public sculptures in Chicago—the Picasso in Daley Plaza, the Miró outside the Cook County Administration Building, the Calder in Federal Plaza, and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park—this Bertoia masterpiece has been overlooked and neglected. In contrast to those other artworks, which are impossible to miss if you’re within a block of them, the Bertoia piece is at the top of a tall flight of stairs, which makes it hard to recognize from the street. For many years its reflecting pool was bone-dry, and in 2013 five rows of rods were sold; the remaining six now stand in two smaller pools on opposite sides of the Aon Center plaza.

Chicago sound artist Olivia Block, though, has long felt a special attachment to the Bertoia sculpture. “I always thought they seemed in disrepair,” she says, “a little bit ignored. When I taught at the School of the Art Institute I took students there, and they loved the sculptures.” Three years ago she and fellow sound artist Lou Mallozzi, founder of Experimental Sound Studio, began brainstorming a work that would shed new light on the Bertoia piece. Mallozzi had already organized a couple of sound installations across the street from it in Millennium Park, including 2008’s “Train Time,” in which Block had also participated. They imagined somehow connecting each of the sculpture’s sounding rods to one of the loudspeakers hanging from the gorgeous trellis above Pritzker Pavilion’s lawn, but soon other projects took precedence and the Bertoia idea ended up on the back burner. It didn’t stay there, though, and this weekend, after nearly a year of grant applications, administrative meetings, and other preparatory work, Block will unveil the Pritzker installation “Sonambient Pavilion.”

Harry Bertoia was a jewelry artist, printmaker, and sculptor, but he remains best known for a line of chairs he designed for Knoll in 1952, many of which are still in production today. He constructed those iconic chairs from welded wire whose curves were designed to cradle the body—before working for Knoll, he’d assisted Charles Eames in bending the wood used in the older designer’s even more famous chairs. Metallic wires became a fixation for Bertoia in the late 50s, after he snapped one that he was trying to bend and it struck another. The sound it made riveted him. In an interview with the Smithsonian Institute in 1972, he explained, “If one wire produces such a sound, what would two rods produce or what would ten or a hundred.” His obsession with sound would continue unabated until he died in 1978 at age 63.

Block listens to an early sound check for “Sonambient Pavilion” in Millennium Park on September 29.
Block listens to an early sound check for “Sonambient Pavilion” in Millennium Park on September 29.Credit: Courtesy Olivia Block

Bertoia made many large-scale public sound sculptures like the one in Chicago, but he also developed a rigorous practice designing smaller, more diverse works that employed similar principles. He kept them in a barn outside his home in Bally, Pennsylvania (about 20 minutes from Reading), and mostly used them for his own edification or eagerly demonstrated them for visitors. He installed four microphones and a tape machine and began recording sound art he created using his sculptures, sometimes incorporating playback of earlier recordings that he ran at varied speeds and in both directions. The pieces’ mix of hushed rustling, resonant drones, and thunderous crashes is dense with overtones; though they probably don’t qualify as music according to most conventional definitions, they’re engrossing and unique. Bertoia wasn’t a composer, and he designed his sculptures with the notion that anyone could “play” them.

In 1970 he released his first album of this work, called Sonambient. In early 1978, diagnosed with lung cancer, he set about releasing ten more (all with the same title as the first), but they didn’t come out till after his death. On November 27, Important Records will celebrate Bertoia’s centennial by releasing all 11 albums in a lavish 11-CD box set accompanied by a 100-page booklet. The label has also partnered with the Bertoia estate to reboot his Sonambient label, which will begin issuing previously unheard music from the 400 or so reel-to-reel tapes he left behind in his barn.

“I’ve had one of those LPs since I was in my 20s,” says Block, 44, who moved to Chicago in 1996 from her native Texas. “And the fact that those sculptures were there the whole time I’ve been here—I just thought it was cool.” When she and Mallozzi began revisiting the idea of a Bertoia sound installation late last year, they quickly realized that the logistics of connecting each rod in the Bertoia sculpture to its own speaker on the Pritzker lawn would be too complex. Partly this was because most of the time the sculptures don’t generate sound on their own—the wind isn’t usually enough to trigger them. Block is a composer as well as a sound artist, though she often uses unconventional materials, and her solution was to record a bank of sounds from the sculptures and make them her exclusive source for “Sonambient Pavilion.”

Block shares the affection that many Chicagoans feel for Pritzker Pavilion, but she’s long yearned to use its ornate network of speakers to do something more creative than reproduce a concert-hall experience. Jonathan Laney of Threshold Acoustics designed the system to mirror a natural room sound, with a built-in delay that lengthens as the grid proceeds south away from the stage. Block fantasized about breaking up the many speakers into multiple clusters, each with their own channel, to achieve a dramatic spatialization—divergent sounds could fill up the massive lawn, allowing the perspective of the listener to change with location.

ESS commissioned “Sonambient Pavilion,” and Mallozzi began the formal process that brought it to Pritzker by arranging a meeting in November 14, 2014, with Block, Laney, Millennium Park general manager Neil Speers, and Matt Nielsen, deputy commissioner of cultural planning and operations at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. (At later meetings, they were joined by Ed Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation.) Block was surprised that everyone was amenable to the proposal, but it certainly helped her case that this fall’s Chicago Architectural Biennial was on the horizon—this presented an opportunity to celebrate the Bertoia installation as well as the work of architect Frank Gehry on Pritzker. “This is what we do at ESS,” says Mallozzi. “We create partnerships in the community in order to give artists more opportunities to explore their work in new contexts, and to give audiences increased access to innovative cultural work.”

Block applied for and received grants from New York-based advocacy group New Music USA and Chicago-based fine-arts organization the Graham Foundation. DCASE helped fund the purchase of the expensive software needed to reconfigure the speaker system for Block’s needs. According to Laney, there have been occasional enhancements to the Pritzker sound system over the years, including a 3-D vocal effect for a Tori Amos concert in 2005. For “Train Time” in 2008 and “Laughter and Tears” in 2011, he worked with Block and Mallozzi to deploy a 5.1 surround system, and in 2012 he added wiring that would allow for sound separation for the Bill Fontana installation “Soaring Echoes.” But “Sonambient Pavilion” pushes Pritzker’s system further than ever before.

“The upgrade is significant,” Mallozzi says. “It moves us from working in a surround-­sound lateral format (similar to surround sound in a theater) to spatializing sounds above the listener as well, creating a monumental enveloping effect. The good news is that the technology remains—both the playback interface and hardware in the pavilion and the production software at ESS.”

In August 2015, Block spent a few evenings with ESS technical supervisor and chief engineer Alex Inglizian making recordings of the Bertoia sculpture. “The way they are situated, the wind doesn’t really play them,” she says. “It moves them a little bit, but not enough to produce a lot of sound. You kind of have to tap them. I had to nudge them a little bit. There were was one time where there was a dad and his little girls playing with them.”

The sculpture doesn’t make a particularly broad range of sounds, but they’re very complex. “It’s basically one kind of sound,” Block says. “It’s metallic and very rich in overtones.” She dumped the recordings into her computer and analyzed them in Pro Tools, pairing some and manipulating others—a kind of analog to Bertoia’s own tape experiments. But at home, working in stereo, she could barely imagine how they’d sound on the 16 channels prepared for her at Pritzker. “It’s really hard to have a sense of what they’re going to be like,” she says. “It’s almost like the difference between an actor on camera for film and an actor onstage. The camera would be like stereo, where I’m used to picking up all the nuances there, but at Pritzker I don’t hear everything. Something way over there has to be very big, and the piece was designed for that system. Everything had to become exaggerated and longer than it would be normally.”

A recording of Bertoia sculptures from the forthcoming Important Records box set Sonambient

On September 29, Block and Laney went to Pritzker to test the sounds she’d been working on at home. “We tried this sort of sample of all these recorded sounds in the computer system, and it sounded amazing,” she says. “It was just perfect. We were both very relieved.” Following the test, Block traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, where she had a weeklong residency at influential electronic-music studio EMS and could use the organization’s 16-channel setup. “I had already done a significant amount of work, but I spent four long, long days in the studio here.” Though the circular room in Sweden is tiny compared with Pritzker’s sprawl, it provided a decent simulacrum.

“I ended up coming to the conclusion that representing the sculptures as they sound and kind of superimposing them on this structure was interesting enough,” Block says. “The scale of Pritzker is so huge and having things sound far apart like when I did the test on-site was really interesting, and I decided not to mess with the sounds as much as I thought I would.”

Block is visiting the park on Thursday, November 5, to see how the work she did in Stockholm turned out. Because Pritzker is open to the public and hosts a full schedule of programs, she’s going to have access to the sound system for just a brief window. “I can’t really do much now without hearing it on-site,” she says. “Now it’s just a waiting game. If it doesn’t work, I’ll have 24 hours to make sure it does.” Her 30-minute finished piece will loop throughout the scheduled hours for “Sonambient Pavilion,” which fall on Saturdays and Sundays through November 22.

Block is thrilled that the new setup at Pritzker will continue to facilitate ambitious site-specific sound art, but even more so she’s happy to remind people about the Bertoia installation. “I felt like they were really important sculptures, and nobody was paying attention to them.”  v