Bridge over trebled water
by Ann Hutton
April 02, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When the New York State Bridge Authority was approached a few years ago by a composer requesting permission to use the Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge as a musical instrument, director of public relations and planning John R. Bellucci admits that he and everyone else at the Bridge Authority had no idea how such a thing could be accomplished - but they were all fascinated enough to allow Joseph Bertolozzi take his gear out onto the Bridge long enough to record sounds. A year later, Bertolozzi brought back a demo called "Bridge Funk," and his proposal was accepted enthusiastically. He went out for another day to explore more facets of sound revealed by the structure as its parts were struck with rubber mallets, wooden dowels and metal hammers. The various tones were then catalogued by pitch and location, and a virtual instrument was created from which Bertolozzi's music could emerge.

Now five years in the making, Bridge Music is a composition in ten movements using only the Bridge itself - that is, the railings, spindles, fences, trusses, panels, cables and suspender ropes have become a giant percussion instrument for the reproduction of tones that might be heard from such instruments as xylophones, chimes and bells, drums, rasps, anvils, bass guitars, marimbas and deep organlike tones. Although the concept is not original - Bertolozzi cites Bill Fontana's Millennium Bridge and Jodi Rose's Singing Bridges as examples of similar musical experimentation - his implementation is unique, resulting in works that expand the boundaries of known music-making. Indeed, in integrating this New York landmark with the boundless realm of musicality, Bertolozzi has created a grand experiment well-fitted to the majesty of the Bridge in its surroundings.

Recognized as a stunning example of 20th-century suspension bridge architecture, the Mid-Hudson Bridge opened to traffic on August 25, 1930. On that first day, 12,000 automobiles and 30,000 pedestrians crossed the river for free. Under construction for five years, it was completed for just short of six million dollars and became only the second bridge to span the Hudson River between Albany and Manhattan. (It was renamed in 1994 by the New York State Legislature in honor of the former governor and president, adding "Franklin D. Roosevelt" to its title.) Bertolozzi notes that the Bridge's designer, Ralph Modjeski, was a highly skilled pianist who ultimately chose engineering as his profession, becoming one of the 20th century's greatest bridge designers. "Both as a pioneering engineer and a musician who loved the music of his own time, he would be intrigued to experience this boundary-shattering synthesis involving his beloved Bridge and the music of our time."

A musician forging a unique identity of his own, Bertolozzi has created works ranging from full symphony orchestra to all-inclusive percussion pieces. He's played at such diverse venues as the Vatican and the US Tennis Open, the latter featuring his solo percussion performance titled The Bronze Collection. He has produced theatrical scores such as his incidental score to Waiting for Godot, performed at the Festival Internationale de Café Theatre in Nancy, France, as well as a large body of liturgical music for use in both Christian and Jewish worship. Many of his compositions - including samples from Bridge Music - can be heard at

Of his audacious plan to use the Mid-Hudson Bridge for artistic purposes, he says that it was chosen for the combination of the practical access to its structural components and its physical beauty and location on the river. And he gratefully acknowledges the Bridge Authority: "They really extended themselves to give us permission. When my sound engineer and I went out, we had to sign releases stating our names, hair color, what clothes we were wearing - presumably to identify us if they had to fish us out of the water." To respect that risk, Bertolozzi was careful to experiment only on surfaces that were reachable without leaving the sidewalk -and, of course, without holding up traffic.

In serendipitous conjunction with the Quadricentennial celebration this year, Bridge Music will be installed at listening stations on the two towers of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, where pedestrians can pause and listen while viewing the river that takes its name from that intrepid but ill-fated explorer, Henry Hudson. This scenic walkway, opened in 1999, gives access to pedestrians, bicyclists and the handicapped across the 3,000-foot-long span dangling 150 feet above the water. Just reaching one of the towers is an awesome trek - and with a little imagination, refrains from Bertolozzi's "The First Landfall" or "The Homecoming" might just conjure the vision of Henry floating his way to Albany on the water below.

Opening ceremonies for Bridge Music will take place on the waterfront at Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie on June 6. Listening stations can be reached from that side of the Bridge or from the Johnson/Iorio Park in Highland. Not-so-intrepid listeners can also hear the recording from stations in the parks on each end of the Bridge via stereo transmission 24 hours a day on 87.9 FM - a feature that will be available all year long until April of 2010. Additionally, CDs and Internet downloads of Bridge Music will be released on May 25 on the Delos label, and will be available at major outlets as well as at the kickoff celebration. The CD features a bonus track of an audio tour of the Bridge, demonstrating the raw samples of sound and then hearing them in the context of Bertolozzi's compositions: a unique souvenir of this 400th anniversary celebration.

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