Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia
(unattributed photograph)


‘Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture’ (1965)
Including pieces from the collection of W. Hawkins Ferry and the Federal Aviation Agency Dulles International Airport and Northwest National Life Insurance Company.
Sculpture music by Harry Bertoia
Produced, Directed, Filmed by Clifford B. West

“In the early 1970’s Designer and Sculptor Harry Bertoia and his son Val, made hundreds of sound sculptures. These sculptures represent Harry Bertoia’s formation of Sonambient.

Sonambient was Bertoia’s term to describe the spatial and tonal environment created by these sound sculptures.

Harry Bertoia created these sculptures of different shapes, length and thickness in order to achieve a range of gentle and sharp sounds. He experimented as a way to seek harmonic balance with the metal, resulting in pure, unique tones.

When touched, struck or brushed, these sculptures became abstractions of sound as they sway and knock against one another. The sounds are organic and mysterious, as tones resonate and flow into each other.

The completed Sonambient also consists of gongs and suspended sonic-bars. Within his renovated barn, Harry made more than 360 magnetic-tape recordings.”

From the Bertoia website, written by Harry Bertoia’s son, Val. More here.

Harry Bertoia – ‘Continuum’

(the A side of the LP ‘Near and Far’ released on Bertoia’s own label, ‘Sonambient’)


Harry Bertoia was born in Italy in 1915, and as a child moved to Michigan, where he attended Cass Technical High School. At Cass Technical, he was introduced to metals. Upon his move to the Cranbrook Academy, he met fellow student Clifford West who became a close friend, and was his best man at his marriage in 1943. After his marriage, Bertoia was persuaded to move to California by his friend Charles Eames, and they collaborated on the design of the famous ‘Eames Chair’ produced by the Herman Miller company.

“In the 1950s, he set up his own studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, where he designed the well-known ‘Bertoia Chair’, also for Knoll. Soon, he was experimenting with sculptures of different alloys and patinas, and would create ‘musique concrète’ soundscapes utilizing his sculptures. He died in 1978, a victim, says West, of heavy metal poisoning, acquired as a result of his constant proximity to metals and chemicals. 

 From a cinemagraphic and sound perspective, this is West’s most progressive film, as abstract in filmmaking technique as the sculptures themselves. Opening with the camera slowly moving over what appears to be the surface of the moon, it suddenly falls back to reveal instead the texture of a sculpture. The film is one of constant motion, resulting from the vertiginous movements of West’s camera, or the movement built into the sculptures themselves. The music, played by Bertoia, utilizing various objects alternately hammering or caressing his sculptures, is reminiscent of the work of Xenakis.”

Description from the Academic Film Archive of North America, here.

Further resources
The Harry Bertoia research project here
This post was inspired by this post
With gratitude to Celia Bertoia for her corrections
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This entry was posted in Short Film, Sound Art, Sound Film, Sound Installation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Harry Bertoia

  1. Thank you for posting your lovely spot on Harry Bertoia, my father. There is more information on Bertoia at our main site: http://www.harrybertoia.org/ Also, the Charles Eames chair was produced by the Herman Miller company, not Knoll. Carry on!

    • JB says:

      Hi Celia, A pleasure! I’m a huge admirer of your father’s work. I’ve corrected accordingly! I hope one day to come and visit the farmhouse to see some of your father’s sound sculptures – they are of particular interest to me as a sound artist myself. Best wishes, JB

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