Sirens wail in the distance and car horns blare, a piano plays a soft melody and church bells ring. The sounds that overwhelm you in Bill Fontana’s “Silent Echoes” installation at the Villa Albertine in New York this weekend are the sounds of the city “heard” by the bells of Notre Dame, Paris’ historic cathedral.
The Bay Area artist had the rare opportunity to enter the fire-damaged building earlier this year to install accelerometers on the church’s 10 bronze bells, starting with the largest and oldest. , known as Emmanuel. These allow him to record the vibrations of the bells, which they continue to emit even when not actively ringing, in response to their surroundings.
Working with technicians from the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), which is linked to the Center Pompidou in Paris, Fontana is able to make these recordings audible to the human ear.
“Personality changes with the weather and the time of day,” Fontana said. “During normal opening hours in Paris, Notre-Dame is a construction site. So the bells will hear the construction. When it’s late afternoon or evening you sometimes have a street musician with a boombox in front of the cathedral. Early in the morning in Paris, I hear birds in the bell tower.
He broadcasts the results live in a sound installation now showing at the Pompidou, and transported the work to New York for two days (June 25-26), where he will also present videos taken from the top of the towers of Notre-Dame. The objective is to interest other institutions in presenting the play.
“With live artwork, it would be possible to set up spontaneous pop-up exhibits anywhere,” Fontana said. He is currently working with French telecommunications giant Orange to determine if the optional fiber network they have installed in the bell tower to transmit audio signals from the bells would also be able to support live cameras.
“Bells essentially act as acoustic mirrors. They react to life around Notre Dame,” Fontana said. “At the Center Pompidou, you don’t need a video element, you have the best view in the world. But when you’re in a museum, thousands of miles away, it would be interesting to have that kind of live view.
Fontana already brings the work to Istanbul, where he has a solo exhibition at the Arter gallery, and at the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has also expressed interest in showing the piece, he said, and he hopes a New York institution will pick it up as well.
On Friday, Fontana presented the installation to a group of art-world guests at the Villa Albertine, the French government’s cultural space in Manhattan, just down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work will remain in public view all weekend, transmitting the sounds of Paris in real time. “The sounds of the bells are not altered in any way,” Fontana said. “Their placement and movement in space creates the composition.”
He has previously described the sounds of Paris echoing through the bells like the “spirit” of Notre-Dame, showing that the historic church, which was devastated by fire in 2019, is a survivor. “It’s alive and well,” Fontana said, “and it’s ongoing.”
Its contract with Notre-Dame allows its recording equipment to remain installed in the church until the end of its restoration. Which means he will be able to hear the church as it resumes bustling activity.
“I’ve spent so many hours of my recent life listening to those bells,” Fontana added. “It’s this very beautiful, almost mystical sound.”
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