Magazine article The New Yorker

RING A DING DING; Hardware

Magazine article The New Yorker

RING A DING DING; Hardware

Article excerpt

The bells in the tower of the MetLife Building used to be an everyday feature of life for several blocks around Madison Square, the Westminster chimes sounding on the quarter-hour, like Big Ben. Newcomers to the neighborhood assumed that they were hearing church bells, until they noticed that there wasn't any church--at least, not one with a bell tower--and realized that what they were hearing was insurance bells. The words that go with the melody (adapted from a measure of Handel's "Messiah," for a bell tower at Cambridge) are peculiarly apt for an insurance company: "O Lord our Guide / Be Thou our Guide / That by Thy help / No foot shall slide."

Then, in 2001, the bells were turned off during renovation work. MetLife sold the building and moved uptown to the former Pan Am Building, and the new owners, a group of investment bankers with a scheme for gutting the tower and refurbishing it as an Ian Schrager hotel, did not turn the bells back on.

In October of 2005, the Madison Square Park Conservancy commissioned Bill Fontana, a sound artist, to create a piece for the park's ongoing sculpture series. "I knew I wanted the bells to be part of the piece," Fontana said recently, at the opening ceremony for the sound sculpture, called "Panoramic Echoes." A mild-looking man of sixty, Fontana was dressed in black, with a black stocking cap and a black backpack, from one zippered compartment of which popped a loop of thick white electric cord. He said of the building, with its high loggias, eyelet windows, and golden cupola, "It was modelled after the Campanile of San Marco, in Venice. When it was built, in 1909, it was the tallest building in the world. It's still the tallest working bell tower."

Fontana, who is based in San Francisco, came to New York as a composer in the late sixties and was influenced by the minimalist aesthetic of John Cage and Steve Reich. Whereas they developed electronic music, he has concentrated on finding patterns in ambient sound--a foghorn, say, or the groanings and whistlings of a bridge--and relocating that sound to someplace that jars it into art. It might be called "found music." He knew he was onto something in 1976, when he recorded a total eclipse of the sun in a rain forest in Australia. "Most people think of an eclipse as a visual experience," he said. …

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