Sonic Shadows
Experimental artist Bill Fontana’s latest sound sculpture has opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, adding an interactive audio experience to work that spans 30 years and much of the world. It was commissioned for the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and combines visitors’ footfalls with ambient sounds.

‘Crossing the bridge on the fifth floor activates a complex work in which the invisible structures of the architecture play as large a role as the movements of visitors. It is a unique SFMOMA sound,’ says San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Curator of Media Arts, Rudolf Frieling. ‘Bill has achieved is a truly hybrid and reactive sculpture of sound in time.’

Looking to urban environments as a dynamic source of sound and control, Sonic Shadows joins installations in Europe, UK and the US, using eight Meyer Sound MM-4XP loudspeakers working in conjunction with four moving ultrasonic emitters – to reproduce sounds generated organically by vibrations inside the building.

‘What I’m creating here is a dimensional shift using sound,’ explains the artist. ‘The MM-4XPs are fading in and out in waves, filling the space, but with the signals slightly offset in time, so they create the illusion of the space expanding into a larger volume. The ultrasonic emitters create interesting spatial sensations but when the Meyers come in, they expand the space with a depth and richness the emitters don’t have.’

Sonic ShadowsNearly invisible, the Meyer Sound MM-4XP miniature active loudspeakers are placed discreetly inside eight of the 254 small ventilation ‘portholes’ across one side of the curving wall. To generate source sounds, Fontana has placed ten vibration sensors (accelerometers) on the building’s rooftop heating and cooling pipes, as well as on the truss pedestrian bridge across the open atrium and on a nearby wooden floor.

The loudspeakers work in conjunction with four ultrasonic emitters, each mounted on pan-tilt heads regularly used for stage lighting. The 24-inch-square emitters modulate ultrasonic signals to create limited bandwidth, extremely directional sounds that stream straight out like water from a high-pressure hose. Programmed to be in constant motion with assistance from Shane Myrbeck of Arup Acoustics, the emitters usually ‘splash’ off surrounding walls but sometimes pass across visitors on the pedestrian bridge to dramatic effect.

Having begun making sound sculptures in 1976, Fontana has used Meyer Sound loudspeakers in nearly all of his works since 1985, often concealing his sound sources by using miniature speakers such as the MM-4XP, or by projecting sounds from a distance using the highly directional SB-1 sound beam. For Sonic Shadows, the MM-4XP was his first choice: ‘A lot of companies make small speakers, but none have anywhere near the sound quality of the MM-4XP,’ he says.

Fontana’s relationship with Meyer Sound founders Helen and John Meyer provided the original impetus for the company’s series of miniature loudspeakers. His search for very small, high quality loudspeakers in a work commissioned for the Lyon, France tramway system in 1999 was met by the first prototypes of the MM-4.

Organised by Rudolf Frieling, Sonic Shadows will run until 16 October 2011.

More: www.sfmoma.org

More: www.meyersound.com

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