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Bill Fontana's New North Beach Sound Sculpture Plays the Sounds of SF

Photo by Christoph Rembser

This weekend, one of the city's most unique, permanent, public artworks will finally be revealed along with the opening of the North Beach Branch Library. A sound sculpture by internationally acclaimed sound artist Bill Fontana will play the sounds of the city back to its residents. 

Titled Sonic Dreamscape, the artwork will broadcast sounds collected from the neighborhood such as the tinkling of glass and silverware at local cafes, the squawking of the famously enigmatic Telegraph Hill parrots, the chiming bells of Washington Square Park's Saints Peter and Paul Church and the reading of a poem by famed beat artist and neighborhood icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"I have been a resident of North Beach since 1999," said Fontana. "The recordings used in this sound sculpture are an accumulation of 15 years of listening and recording sounds of this neighborhood, which have been a permanent part of my life here. Sonic Dreamscape portrays how the accumulation of these sounds float together in my memory and imagination as a sonic dream."

The sound will be transmitted from the Columbus-side of the building through eight highly specialized, weatherproof Meyer speakers from 8:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m., and the final mix will constantly change so that you'll always hear something new as you walk down the street. 

We got the inside scoop on the new sculpture from Bill Fontana: 

Describe the North Beach Branch Library sound sculpture.

It’s like a dream sequence.

Sounds recorded for the project:

Bustling cafes, Chinatown markets, parades, birds, cable cars, church bells, distant foghorns, sea lions, children in parks, archived sound clips of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band.

Thoughts on the installation as a permanent fixture in your own neighborhood?

It makes me nervous. It’s so close to home.

What’s your studio like?

It’s piled high with computers, video cameras, digital single-lens reflex cameras, microphones, hydrophones, accelerometers for recording vibrations, and lots of power cords.

Favorite sound sculpture:

You know the saying, “Love the one you’re with”? I apply that to my work.

Most unusual sound clip you’ve recorded?

Buddhist temple bells outside Kyoto—when they weren’t ringing.

How do you overcome creative block?

I never have it.

Check out the installation video, then go hear Sonic Dreamscape for yourself.