When Bill Fontana brings the bells of Notre-Dame back to life

On the 5th floor terrace of the Center Pompidou, artist Bill Fontana makes us hear “live” the permanent vibrations of the bells of Notre Dame while they are totally inaudible to the ear. This is a magnificent and impressive sound installation produced as part of the Manifeste 2022 festival of IRCAM (Institute for Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination). This unusual sound of the bells (mute since the fire) brings us back to Notre Dame de Paris.

In 2016, in an article titled: "Bill Fontana, the artist who sculpts the noise of the world", I wrote as a physicist how much the work of Bill Fontana's sound sculptor interested me: “Everything vibrates around us, but most often we don't perceive this vibration of the world. Yet one can spend one's life playing with these vibrations and making them perceptible. This is what the artist Bill Fontana has been doing for 45 years, for example by recording the sound of the bells of the Basilica of Saint-Denis caused only by the noises of the market on the square below. »

Technology to hear noise

Bill Fontana spent his life sticking accelerometers on a large number of monuments, bells, gongs, bridges… all over the world to make their mechanical vibrations induced by ambient noise heard.


Because everything moves around us. While these vibrations are normally inaudible and ignored, they are very present and well known to scientists and engineers. These noises can insinuate themselves into the measurement of a signal and are therefore most of the time a nuisance... Micro-accelerometers sensitive to these vibrations came from micro/nanoelectronics at the end of the XNUMXth centurye century. They are now everywhere on Earth, and especially in every smartphone. So you can play like Bill Fontana recording this sound of the world. To see this noise, you can use the physics teachers application PhyPhox which allows you to manipulate all the sensors of the smartphone. The physicists behind PhyPhox draw curves and do not transform these mechanical noises to feed our perception. This is what Bill Fontana and IRCAM did to give the permanent sound of the bells of Notre Dame to be heard here.


The vibrations of the world described by physics

When I found out a few days ago that Bill Fontana had installed Silent Echoes, name of his work in motion for years, between the Center Pompidou and Notre-Dame, at first I only expressed a polite interest. After the bells of the Saint-Denis Basilica, the Millenium Bridge in London, bells in temples in Japan, etc. we can of course continue, but why do it, one is tempted to say? We understood the point. I loved it, but I had moved on.

My approach to Bill Fontana's work is primarily that of a physicist specializing in the thermal vibrations of micro/nanostructures. It seems very far from the bells of Notre Dame. And yet for all physicists, all mechanics, ultimately all those, including IRCAM researchers, for whom this sentence "study of the frequency response of a linear system subjected to broadband noise as input" has a meaning clear, it's ultimately the same thing.

In a number of situations, physicists work tirelessly to, if not suppress, at least isolate their experiments from the noises that Bill Fontana gives us to hear. One of these most beautiful systems, protected as never before seen from all external mechanical vibrations wherever they come from, is the European Virgo observatory for the detection of gravitational waves. The physicist Alain Brillet, CNRS gold medal in 2017, spends a lot of time in these lectures on the instrument at the heart of Virgo, explaining how its mirrors are one of the most isolated systems on Earth.

So I was first fascinated by this artistic implementation of micro-accelerometers today in our daily lives, but resulting from a technology of an unprecedented level. Probably the heart of my reading of his work a few years ago. The terrace of the Center Pompidou with this new installation would remind me that an interesting work of art is multiple, and can be completely renewed in the eyes of its viewer. A real shock.

Mea Culpa

In fact, I only had experience of Bill Fontana's work through his videos, his texts, also through the work of students that I had supervised on "Learning by doing" projects very inspired by his creations such as “Good vibrations: The Jelly Vibration, No Tech project! ».


So I had never been present at one of his “live” works, body and spirit brought together. Result, despite the heat wave in this month of June 2022, I stayed two hours on the terrace of the Center Pompidou facing Notre-Dame to listen to this permanent vibration of the bells given to hear there for the first time. First of all, and even if I am not able to appreciate all the subtleties, I admired the sound work of the space of the terrace with these loudspeakers which encircle it, and even in the open air , immerse the audience in the heart of sound. It is there everywhere enveloping, hypnotic, changing, but permanent. “The sea, the sea, always starting over! wrote Paul Valéry. Also true for the vibration of the bells of Notre Dame. They have been vibrating like this since they exist, and will vibrate as long as they exist, in response to the noises of Paris.

A host of memories

Like everyone else, I haven't entered Notre Dame since the fire, and my next visit might be a bit of a wait. On the afternoon of April 15, 2019, with researchers, teachers and students, I was in front of Notre Dame on fire, in the Marais, on the roof of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research of the University of Paris Cité, flabbergasted and frozen like all, collapsed when the arrow fell. And then, three years later, I am on this terrace of the Center Pompidou, Notre Dame is there, opposite. Paris and its sounds are everywhere. The sound of the bells comes out of the loudspeakers around me, and settles me in the heart of the cathedral which has survived despite the extent of the destruction.

It's a sound which I have never heard, but it is obviously that of the bells. He's there. Still there. And it brings back those moments that make you up. At that moment, you can't do anything about it. In Corto Maltese, Hugo Pratt has a Scottish soldier say:

“I've always been saddened by those who listen to bagpipes… without being Scottish. »

You are overwhelmed: Notre Dame, Victor Hugo, the images of the Liberation of Paris, and this terrible moment, but together on this roof in the spring of 2019. March 3, 2022, thinking of martyred Ukraine and for peace in Europe , the bell of Notre Dame rang, joining other bells across the continent. After the fire, the leaf had to be handled by hand.

Of course, I also used my smartphone. The PhyPhox app allowed me to record speaker sound and calculate dozens of audio spectra. To build my entire presence in this work, I needed to anchor myself by trying to identify the resonance frequencies of the different bells, that is to say their notes. Very nice curves. Everyone approaches an artistic work as they wish… or as they are! Artist Bill Fontana managed to turn me around and I was very happy about it.

Joel Chevrier, Physics teacher, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com/maphke

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