Bill Fontana

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Born: 1947 — Cleveland, Ohio — USA
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Bill Fontana is an American artist internationally known for his experimental work in sound. He shares with the small group of artists who work in the medium an interest in transforming the aural environment. He is unique, however, in employing exclusively ambient, rather than electronic, sound . Fontana regards the physical environment as a living source of musical information, with aesthetic and evocative qualities that can conjure up visual imagery.

Fontana was trained in philosophy and music, but even as a young composer, he was less interested in creating traditional musical composition than in exploring musical form in everyday sound. In the late sixties, he gradually moved from musical composition to musical sculptures in which he developed further the concept of the natural environment as a musical information system.

These early works, dating from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, relate to the Fontana’s musical training. They are based on his belief in the musical potential of the sonic environment. Fontana acknowledges the influence of Zen Bhuddism and John Cage, who defined music as a state of mind, on his thinking of the time, as well as the influence of minimalist composers, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.

As Fontana uses the term, a "sound or musical sculpture" is an environment of physical/spatial dimensions created by sounds. Unlike musical performance, Fontana’s sound sculptures have no beginning, middle or end but , like physical objects, are continuums. Sound sculptures are perceived by the ear but can evoke visual imagery through mental processes. These works are demanding on the listener/viewer in that they require close concentration ("paying attention" in Cageian phraseology) and must be experienced slowly. They are equally demanding on the performers, not so much technically, as conceptually, since they defy the traditional rules and goals of musical composition.

Since 1976, Fontana has created site-specific sound installations in major cities from San Francisco to Kyoto in which he relocates ambient sound, from one location, most often away from the city, to a central public, urban space. This has the effect of sharpening the perception of the aural landscape as what is heard is not actually visible. Fontana, however, exploits sound’s capacity to elicit visual imagery through memory and knowledge, even as he creates a tension caused by the disjunction of what is heard and what is seen.


  • Born: Cleveland, Ohio, 1947
  • Resides: San Francisco
  • Education: New School for Social Research, New York, B.A. 1970
  • Cleveland Institute of Music, 1967
  • John Carroll University, Cleveland, 1965-67
  • Fellowships: National Endowment for the Arts, 1990-91
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1986-87
  • Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, 1985-86
  • Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD, 1983-84 and 1988-89

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(1824) Ludwig van Beethoven: Premiere of Missa Solemnis op. 123, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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