Hear, here

Bill Fontana and Jacob Kirkegaard play your ears
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johnny@sfbg.com

As I walk into City Hall, I hear a horn from the street — not a car horn, but a single trumpet. Further inside, what might be a few notes from a harpsichord hover in the air, followed by the twitters and chirps of swooping birds. A man sits on the steps at the foot of the rotunda stairs, looking up in slight bewilderment, wondering where in the hell the trees and small jungle might be. The source of these sounds is above him, by the rotunda's dome — eight transducers installed by sound artist Bill Fontana that employ echolocation as part of a site-specific sound sculpture titled Spiraling Echoes.

A few days later, I step out of the rain and onto a wet 22 Fillmore bus, with a persistent hum, drone, or whine in my ears. I'm wearing headphones and listening to Jacob Kirkegaard's latest recording, Labyrinthitis (Touch Music/Fonik). I hear hearing: Kirkegaard produced the piece by inserting tiny microphones into his ears to record the frequencies — otoacoustic emissions — produced by hairs within the cochlea. Labyrinthitis is both a recording and a live performance, and the live version, during which the audience's ears are transformed into an orchestra conducted by Kirkegaard, might be even more radical and inventive.

While one work might seem vast and exterior and the other almost infinitely interior in nature, these two sound projects have more than a few things in common. The CD version of Kirkegaard's Labyrinthitis includes a short piece by the composer Anthony Moore, who conducted an extended interview with Fontana in 2005 that surveyed Fontana's projects. Labyrinthitis comes with a more extensive essay written in San Francisco by Douglas Kahn. A deeper resonance, however, stems from audio and visual correlations between City Hall's rotunda and the human ear. Photos of the rotunda's dome visibly echo the images of the spiraling interior roof of the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, where Kirkegaard created Labyrinthitis, a roof that plays a central role in the recording's material packaging. Both structures evoke the interior of an ear.

Spiraling Echoes is a more playful work. It's in keeping with some of Fontana's other pieces in iconic sites — through sound, he's taken apart Big Ben's timekeeping, replaced the traffic noise around the Arc de Triomphe with sea ambience, and brought Niagara Falls to New York City's Whitney Museum. For more than thirty years, Fontana has made a practice of bringing the "natural" into man-made realms — there is a potent current of environmentalism within his aesthetic. This is true of Spiraling Echoes' quicksilver collage of bird chatter, trickling water, and streetcar and church bells, which darts up and down four public-access floors of City Hall in a manner that magnifies the beauty of the architecture and plays with historical markers, such as the smile on a statue of Harvey Milk. (One can imagine Milk enjoying this piece and, eventually, being driven batty by it.) The infusion of nature is a subtle hint to not trash monuments, and in turn the environment, in order to create newer architecture. It's tempting to suggest prankish unauthorized versions of Fontana's project in commercial sites such as downtown malls.

Another characteristic that Spiraling Echoes and Labyrinthitis share is the ability to produce disorientation. Fontana's piece brought out the Scotty Ferguson in me through its combination of surprising sound and potentially dizzying height. Kirkegaard incites a similar lack of balance no matter where one is standing — the title of Labyrinthitis refers to a balance disorder that can be related to tinnitus.

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