A Towering Project

A Beacon resident turns Paris’s Eiffel Tower into a giant musical instrument.

History is often made from seemingly insignificant moments. Such is the case with composer Joseph Bertolozzi’s latest album, Tower Music. Back in 2004, he recalls, “My wife took a mock swing at a poster of the Eiffel Tower and said, ‘Bong.’ I said, ‘You know something, that could work.’ ”

Thus began the Beacon resident’s 12-year endeavor to create music by using the tower as an enormous percussion instrument. He would tap various surfaces on the tower and record the sounds they created, then layer those notes together into original compositions.

But the composer, 57, knew that he would need to prove to the French that he wouldn’t damage their beloved monument before they’d let him take swings at it. Aware that Gustave Eiffel, the tower’s architect, was also a bridge builder, he first tested his idea on the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Bridge Music debuted in 2009, and can be heard “live” at two jukeboxes on the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, by tuning to 95.3 FM while driving, or in the parks below the bridge on either side of the river.

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Bertolozzi with his seven-member “orchestra”

With Bridge Music under his belt, Bertolozzi’s next step was to tackle the French government—even though he didn’t speak the language. After discovering that tower operations are overseen by the Paris mayor’s office, he wrote and called the mayor directly six times… to no avail. During this frustrating period, he says he learned much about cultural idiosyncrasies: “For instance, you don’t ask the French an open-ended question,” he says. “If you told them: ‘I’m available Tuesday or Thursday, do either of those work for you?’ you have said nothing to them. You have to say: ‘I’m available Tuesday at noon.’ Then they’ll answer you. Maybe.”

The idea was finally approved in 2013. Bertolozzi and a crew of seven others placed microphones on hand rails, benches, floors, and other tower surfaces; for two weeks, they recorded the notes produced when each surface was struck. “Most other tourists thought we were making a movie,” he recalls.

It took him four months to catalogue the 10,000 sounds collected at the tower and another nine to compose the music, “but that was the fun part,” he says. The nine-track Tower Music dropped on April 29; this month, Vassar College debuts an exhibit of 30 photographs, snapped by local artist Franc Palaia, that document the trip.

What’s Bertolozzi’s next project? No, not taking on the Tower of London, but having Tower Music performed live. “The music is written to be played by live musicians,” Bertolozzi explains. “I’m hoping that will be the end result.”

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If you go…
Tower Music/Musique de la Tour, a Music and Photographic Presentation
June 10-July 28
11:30 am-6 pm
James W. Palmer Gallery
Vassar College
124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie
845-437-5370; palmergallery.vassar.edu

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