Notes on a bridge

Composer Joseph Bertolozzi has recorded sounds from the Mid-Hudson Bridge to create a new kind of symphony.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Over a period of five days, Joseph Bertolozzi used contact microphones to record the sounds of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. He produced over 1,000 audio samples by hitting the bridge with wooden and metal mallets, logs, and hammers.
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    Composer Joseph Bertolozzi attempts to play the Mid-Hudson Bridge like a violin by bowing a section of the bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
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For most of his career Joseph Bertolozzi has written music for symphony orchestras. But his most recent composition was written for an instrument towering 135 feet above the Hudson River: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

For five years the New York composer has been fixated on making the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge (also known as the Mid-Hudson Bridge) sing. His whole love affair with the suspension bridge began in 2004 after his wife playfully gestured at a poster picturing the Eiffel Tower while making a musical noise. Bertolozzi says the random incident inspired him to find a way to play the Eiffel Tower, but not knowing anyone in Paris or how to speak French, he settled on finding a structure closer to home.

His quest was not easy. He made trips to the local library digging up books on bridge construction, physics, and metallurgy. He spoke to an engineer and learned about how different types of paint might affect the sounds he planned to record. And he met with the New York Bridge Authority many times to try and convince them that he was not a "nut case."

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A year or two later, Bertolozzi found his bridge. Situated between Highland, N.Y., and Poughkeepsie, the Mid-Hudson Bridge became his coveted instrument.

Though he had found the perfect bridge, he would have little time to record music. Bertolozzi was only allotted three days in 2006 and two days in 2007 to record sounds from the bridge. Over those five days, he brought along a sound engineer and asked bridge laborers to record sounds that were higher up and harder to reach. Using contact microphones to capture the sounds, Bertolozzi struck the various parts of the bridge – including guardrails, spindles, and girders – with wooden and metal mallets, hammers, and logs. Within five days, he had recorded 1,000 samples, which he later categorized by sound and note in his computer to begin composing "Bridge Music."

The composition process was unlike anything he had ever experienced. "It's not tuned like a guitar or a piano," Bertolozzi says, noting that certain parts of the bridge when struck would create two or three notes simultaneously. Though he was accustomed to writing compositions for percussion and the organ, Bertolozzi's notation sheets for the bridge music featured rather different parts for 24 "musicians," such as guardrails and signs.

None of his music, he says, was electronically manipulated. "You're hearing the bridge exactly the way it sounds," he says. "You'll think you're hearing a bell or a bass guitar. All those sounds are the bridge itself."

Originally, Bertolozzi intended to write the music for live concerts. The composer aspired to hold a series of concerts with 24 musicians playing different parts of the bridge, but limited funding put that dream on hold.

What has resulted, however, is a full-length, 11-track album titled "Bridge Music." The album, which was released on May 26, has already placed No. 18 on the Billboard classical crossover chart and is ranked No. 39 on the Billboard classical chart.

In addition to the album's release, a permanent installation of Bertolozzi's bridge music launched on June 6 on the Mid-Hudson Bridge so that all could experience the unique genre of music. On either end of the bridge, visitors can press buttons on a listening station to hear various parts of the bridge as well as samples of "Bridge Music." Drivers can also hear the music from their vehicles. As they pass over the suspension bridge and tune into 95.3 FM on their radios they are met with a rhythmic symphony of steel that mimics city street drummers.

Bertolozzi isn't the first to use a bridge as an instrument. In 2006, San Francisco artist Bill Fontana placed eight vibration sensors on the Millennium Bridge in London to gather ambient noise. The noise was then directly piped into the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, an art gallery, and a subway station. Since 2002, sound artist Jodi Rose has focused on recording the sounds of bridge cables on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Anzac Bridge in Sydney, Australia, among many others, to compose experimental music for her project "Singing Bridges."

Though Bertolozzi's live concert on the Mid-Hudson Bridge has been put on hold, he hasn't stopped dreaming. "Maybe someone after me will find their own bridge and expand upon the idea," he says. As for the Eiffel Tower, the inspiration that sparked this unique symphony, "Maybe that's in the future," he says.

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