S otheby’s is honored to offer outstanding works from Harry Bertoia’s legendary Sonambient Barn Collection. This landmark auction event presents a selection of Sonambient sculptures from Bertoia’s own personal collection that represent the most superlative examples from this iconic series—those which the artist retained for their exceptional tonal and aesthetic qualities. Collectively, they are the “Sonambient”—Bertoia’s term for the sound environment the sculptures create together. It is the culmination of Bertoia’s life’s work, fulfilling his aspiration to achieve transcendence through the integration of form, sound, space, and nature. On behalf of the Bertoia family and Harry Bertoia Foundation, it is our privilege to present this seminal collection by one of America’s most revered and innovative artists of the 20th Century. Proceeds from this auction will benefit the Bertoia Catalogue Raisonné Project.
“S onambient” is a word that Harry Bertoia, my father, invented and registered after several discussions around the family dinner table. It was unusual for Harry to name any of his works unless requested to do so. Because he devoted the last twenty years of his life to these sounding sculptures, they claimed a piece of his heart and he felt compelled to give them a title. “Sonambient” refers to the barn environment created by the artist’s own sounding sculptures and their subsequent recordings. He spent many years experimenting with them because there were so many intriguing possible variants. Thin tall rods, thick short rods, cattail tops, cylinder tops, staggered heights, beryllium copper, monel or inconel, densely populated, sparsely scattered, gongs and singing bars – they all produced varying tones and decibels as well as offering elegant visuals. Having enjoyed but never having played musical instruments as a child, Harry fulfilled a lifelong desire to design an instrument that required no training but only a zest for life. We might say that this phase of his career resulted in the culmination of his oeuvre; his final Masterworks.
It was Harry’s brother, Oreste, an aspiring musician who worked at the Ford factory, who suggested (upon seeing the first few toning sculptures) that a group of them be gathered into an orchestra of sorts. Thus Harry embarked on having our family’s old Pennsylvania Deutsch barn transformed into a private concert hall. The pitchforks were removed, the hay and critters kicked out, and a thick wooden door was installed over the lower level which created excellent acoustics in a sort of oversized sound box. By 1970, Harry had placed several dozen tonals (as he liked to call them) in the renovated barn. He hung four state-of-the-art microphones from the high ceiling in and around the sculptures and prepared to document the sounds in his laboratory. Harry and Oreste spent many happy hours inside the Sonambient Barn. They had barely a couple of years before Oreste died in 1972, but in that time hundreds of Sonambient recordings graced their reel to reel tapes. Harry learned unique ways of playing the instruments, one being rubbing his wet thumb against the gong surface to produce an eerie sound. Jacques Cousteau commented that it sounded just like whales. The Bertoia brothers even invited their sister, Ave, inside to sing with them. Her clear unworded song was a beautiful addition. Having the three of them together in the midst of Harry’s beloved tonals was a blissful experience for the siblings. The barn, even after Oreste’s death, became Harry’s retreat and he often stole away to it after his evening nap.
On occasion he would invite the rest of us to bear witness to his creation. My memories of times in the Sonambient Barn while growing up are robust and clear in my mind’s eyes and ears. Any worthy friend of Harry’s who visited during those years was privy to the special experience of a barn concert given by Harry. He always removed his shoes upon entering the barn, so as not to interfere with the sculptures’ voices. He usually introduced his personal performances with just a few words; something about being in the midst of the Pennsylvania countryside blending easily with the natural universe all around us. We lived on about 200 acres of mostly virgin forest and meadow. The other-worldly music that he evoked from his tonal sculptures spoke for itself.
Harry decided how and which tonal to play partly by intuition and partly by knowing each of them so well, perhaps better than his children. They were grouped, not by size or type, but in small assemblages of a variety of sculptures so that he could pull diverse sounds in each section. Gentle strumming on the bottom section of a tall tonal produced a deep rumbling. A cylinder-topped chest-high tonal added accent and percussion. The occasional isolated high notes of the singing bars introduced levity. As the cumulative decibel level increased with more sculptures undulating and sounding, he struck the 10’ gong to deliver a blast of thunder. The combination of the visual swaying, the auditory tones, and the actual oor vibrations created a circumstance in which it was impossible not to be fully present in the moment. The once stoic still rods now opened and closed, breathing with life. Harry moved quietly through his orchestra stroking or pushing his instruments. He was completely involved in his work-play and his audience was swirling in the experience. It was transformative.
While words will never fully convey the power and presence of the barn concert experience, I can say that I was always moved, empowered, and cleansed of whatever daily nonsense that had been with me prior to a tonal adventure in the barn. My father relayed his strength, his oneness with nature and his love for life through the Sonambient concerts. He gave me more in those moments than any Christmas present or fatherly advice ever would.
In our quest to share Sonambient with the world we are delighted to offer these magnificent specimens to private collectors, and we take great reward in seeing these sculptures join a new home. They need to breathe the air and sing their songs again! Harry hoped that Sonambient would be oered to the public, and especially to young people, for generations to come. And that is my wish, too.