Earlier this month, Harry Bertoia's Sonambient sculptures filled the Miller Symphony Hall with a variety of subtle reverberations producing deeps hums and pleasant chimes. On a platform next to the Allentown Symphony orchestra, composer Doug Ovens set up a cluster of tall, slender bronze and beryllium copper rods. The minimalistic looking sculptures were indeed Bertoia's Sonambient sculptures.
Doug Ovens is an active composer and percussionist, having performed his own work around the US and abroad, from the Akiyoshidai International Arts Village in Japan to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Philadelphia. Ovens has written over 90 pieces, receiving commissions from numerous orchestras such as the North/South Chamber Orchestra from New York City and the Allentown Symphony from Allentown, PA. In light of the unique nature of Ovens' "instruments" and their connection to Knoll, Sabine Illias, Knoll associate, asked Ovens a couple of questions.
What was your musical vision for your piece with the Allentown Symphony?
I wanted to honor the orchestra and honor the tonal sculptures and have the 2 galaxies musically intersect. Each sculpture has many sound generators so there is a cloud-like motion of activity to create the chord, like the ringing of the sculptures. The sweeping effect was created by each stand having different music played at a slightly different interval as it moves through the orchestra.
How has Bertoia influenced contemporary music?
The answer is part of a bigger question. What started in the 20th century was a fascination with SOUND (reference to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the composer John Cage). We value the tune and the harmonies, but Bertoia was part of the movement that was open to being swayed by sound. In his sculptures he found this other beautiful way to create music. Of note - the sculptures weren’t originally a sound piece. They were sculptures to represent nature such as a wheat field in motion. This changed when higher quality metals were used which created the sonic tones.
What are the challenges in playing the instruments?
The challenge and the joy is that you are always going to get a different sound. There are different ways to set them in motion and you select the action and percussion technique to create the sound. Some of the techniques are to strum with your fingers, silence with your hands, tap and strike the top or sides with drum sticks and mallets.
The Allentown Symphony, led by Diane Wittry, commissioned the original work to coincide with the Bertoia exhibit at the Allentown Art Musuem - Reverberations: Sound Sculptures by Harry Bertoia. With passion and finesse, the Allentown Symphony plays time-honored masterworks, newly commissioned world premiers, and unusual and intriguing pieces, including works by prominent new composers. In 2014, the orchestra received the national American Prize for "orchestral excellence."