Copper in the Arts

July 2007

Val Bertoia: Alloy and Metaphor

By Sarah S. Edmonds

Val Bertoia with Gong Artist Val Bertoia and a Gong used for his Sonambient sound art

Photograph by Dan Leathersich

The first glimpse into Val Bertoia's world reveals a mixture of polarities; he is a fine artist, who is also a car enthusiast. He is a left-brained engineer who is equally comfortable spending his day solving right-brained creative problems. He is a sculptor and performer of ephemeral sound works, whose medium is manufactured metal, altered only slightly.

Val began to work seriously on this now substantial body of work in 1972 collaborating with his late father, Harry Bertoia (of the Bertoia/Knoll Chair fame) and he continues to selflessly teach and maintain his father's legacy today. It was during the early seventies that Val and his father developed the Sonambient™ line of sound sculptures. Each piece is a physical tool to express ethereal sounds, mounds of metal articulating abstract thoughts in a non-objective, highly sensitive way. The sculptures are composed of vertical metal rods of various gages and alloys, cantilevered and soldered with silver to brass plates. The finished works are played by a standing performer who clangs, pushes or brushes the rods, causing the vibrations and sway of the metals to create tones.

On an old Pennsylvania farm, Val performs an ethereal sound chorus using instruments of copper, steel and bronze alloys. Normally, when an alloy is made, two or more metallic elements intermix, and usually the purity of a metal will deteriorate, or cheapen. For him, the intermixing of two or more parts means not losing quality, but rather gaining interconnectivity. Val's blending of opposites creates harmony, and from this blending of opposites emerge statements and images of oddly calming unity.

Gong Pedestal by Val Bertoia Gong Pedestal by Val Bertoia

Photograph by Dan Leathersich

A visit to Bertoia Studios in Bally, Pennsylvania, reveals various sound sculptures and features a walk through his ever-evolving outdoor sculptures park and nature trail. Harry Bertoia's sculptures intermix with Val's playful depictions of beasts and plants of all kinds, including some linear sculptures made of copper rods and tubing. (Because of its malleability, Val likens working with copper to "drawing in space.") The calm, unpretentious conversation drifts between art making, nature, solar power and his interest in people who personify their Chinese animal calendar characteristics.

The climax of the trip is Val's very reverent playing of the Sonambient sculptures in the sounding barn. The fifteen-minute performance is held in a simply renovated barn where visitors sit facing an orchestra of artfully positioned brass, bronze, copper, silver and steel. The audience rests in classic Bertoia chairs, facing a nearly dark installation which, according to Val, is the best way to really integrate the experience. The sounds that came from the metal begin as recognizable tings, dings and reverberations. As more sounds are added, the tones begin to move from single instruments into a powerful sonic alloy of hums, vibrations and echoes that become reverberate like an ancient chant. In their time together, Val and Harry Bertoia created over 360 recordings in the ever-evolving sound barn.

"The sounds and forms all came together as the most phenomenal metallic expression of man this human-world has known," adds Val.


To arrange a tour or purchase recordings of Val Bertoia's performances, call (610) 845-7096 or visit the Bertoia Studio.

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