Entertainment & Arts

Chesil Beach waves to wash over central London

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Media captionFootage of Chesil Beach, courtesy of Bill Fontana

As sound artist Bill Fontana puts the final touches to his latest project - the sound of waves from Dorset's Chesil Beach broadcast live across London's busy Euston Road - he explains why he hopes his work will help people listen more to the world around them.

The traffic congested Euston Road is an unlikely place to hear the enigmatic crashing of waves onto a pebble beach, but for Bill Fontana this is entirely the point of his latest work White Sound.

He says his project is "an experiment in perception" of both the sound of the water and the traffic.

"Most people really don't pay any attention to the sounds around them. I want to create an art form that challenges that," explains Fontana. "To change the context in which you hear something, you change the meaning of it.

Image caption Bill Fontana says listening is like 'meditation' for him

"And if you were to take a wonderful recording of Euston Road traffic and played it in the middle of a desert, it could have something magical about it that you fail to appreciate in its usual setting. "

A series of microphones have been set up at different points along the beach.

The sound will be mixed and the resulting "sculptured" ebbing and flowing will be broadcast from speakers at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road.

The idea is to block out, as far as possible, the sound of the cars - hence the title of the work's allusion to white noise.

"White sound is known to have masking qualities. It is so complex that you really can't add anything to it. That's why it will cover other sounds and the sound of waves happens to be a very beautiful form of it," says the artist.

Fontana admits to being "obsessed with sound", both harmonious and discordant.

"I don't think all sounds are beautiful but I can wrap my head around any sound. I've just developed my senses. Listening is almost like meditation, like going into some kind of trance for me," he says.

"What I have to do is stop the world and get into the fact that this moment is never going to happen again. I try to get my mind to fully engage with the moment and connect with everything going on around me."

It is no surprise that Fontana hates iPods.

"They disconnect people from what's around them. To me, walking down the street with headphones is very antisocial behaviour," he says.

Beach romance

Fontana's passion has taken him around the globe, mounting sound sculptures in cities including New York, Vienna and Berlin.

On his travels, he formed a particular affection for Chesil Beach, an 18-mile bank of pebbles graded in size along its length, flanked by a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other.

"I really fell in love with Chesil Beach because of its unique genealogy and the fact that it's a peninsula made entirely of pebbles, that in itself is quite remarkable. And the sound of the sea is quite remarkable too," he says.

Image caption Big Ben's inner workings were part of a Fontana project which made him fall in love with London

"Water is capable of so many personalities and the sound of the sea is probably one of the most difficult to capture and record."

He first came across Chesil Beach when working on a project for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and not after reading author Ian McEwan's best-seller Chesil Beach.

"It gives a very different perspective to the beach to one I portray. But it captures the romantic nature of the place," says Fontana of the story of doomed young love, which he read after his Greenwich project.

He also holds an affection for London, which began when recording the sounds from within Big Ben's clock tower in 2003.

"I had unlimited access and it was so special for me as an American to enter that world and have an intimacy with something so integral to London's history," he says.

Purist opposition

Fontana hails from Cleveland, Ohio, but now lives in San Francisco, where he was drawn by the sound of the fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Image caption John Cage was a mentor for Fontana

Fontana studied at two colleges, learning music composition in one and then philosophy in the other.

He later went to New York, where he became interested in the Minimalism in music movement and became a friend of the late experimental composer John Cage.

But it was in the late 70s, while working for ABC in Australia on a radio project, that Fontana's future path as a sound artist begun, when experiencing a total eclipse of the sun in a rainforest.

"What happens before the silence is the total opposite, a sort of franticness as the birds say: 'What's going on?' None of the animals know where they are any more because the light starts doing very strange things. It sparked something in my imagination," says Fontana.

He has since gone on to mount an impressive list of works, including bringing the sound of the sea from the Normandy beaches to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the inner vibrations of London's Millennium Bridge to London's Tate Modern.

But for all his success, surely Fontana has had to contend with opposition from art purists?

"Yes, especially earlier in my career," he says. "But now it's not so much an issue. Visual art institutions still have problems knowing what do with this so it's often easier to put my work on the outside of buildings."

But the people who will be walking along the Euston Road over the coming weeks, will they understand his work?

"My sculptures train the body in the act of listening, it's a way of experiencing the wholeness of the moment. Some people get it, some don't," says Fontana.

"I would hope that at least one person would have their own magical moment from what I do."

White Sound: An Urban Seascape runs at London's Wellcome Collection from 22 September to 16 October.

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