When the Golden Gate was built, the San Francisco Chronicle called it a thirty-five-million-dollar steel harp. Its chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, probably didn’t mind. In fact, he seemed to think so too, writing, “As harps for the winds of heaven / my weblike cables are spun.” Australia’s Glebe Island Bridge elicited a similar response in budding sound artist Jodi Rose. “When I was at art school in ’95, I would drive by the Glebe Island Bridge (Anzac Bridge) every day and it just looked like a giant harp to me.”
Being neither poet-engineer nor snarky newspaperman, Rose, who had recently been told to concoct a public art project without consideration for practicality, decided to see what the bridge actually sounded like. “Freedom of imagination is not a gift to be taken lightly,” she reflected. A recording ingénue, Rose “concocted a theoretical idea about bridges and networks” (these thoughts have since sprawled into rather impressive journals), thereby enlisting the help of radio ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
“I had no idea what to imagine. It was a little nerve-wracking. I had all this fairly heavy-duty equipment coming up there with me and I thought, ‘Oh no, what if there’s no sound?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter, it’s an experiment really.’”
Using small, round contact microphones pressed directly onto the cables, Rose amplified their creaks, moans, sighs, and songs. “There were all these pows and pops—it was amazing,” she recalls. The Singing Bridges project was born, and she’s been listening ever since.
In her bridge recording travels, she’s spanned the globe, a journey tracing the network of bridges linking cities, countries, and continents: from her native Australia to the My Thuan Bridge over the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, to the Erasmus Bridge in the Netherlands. Sometimes she is beckoned by engineers (Swedish engineer Pelle Gustavsson wanted to hear his bridge—the RAMA VIII in Bangkok—played like Jimi Hendrix), but mostly, it’s the bridges themselves that do all the beckoning.
Other artists and musicians have also taken forays into the world of bridges—in 2006, sound artist Bill Fontana, known for his “found music” approach, used vibration sensors to capture the sounds of the Millennium Bridge in London, which were then transmitted to a room in the Tate Modern. Composer Joseph Bertolozzi is in the process of (literally) banging out a symphony on the mid-Hudson bridge in New York. Most stay only briefly, but since that enchanting day on the Glebe Island, Rose hasn’t strayed.
“There’s something about the scale of my obsession that sets it apart,” she laughs. “People often ask about other architectural objects, but really, I just have this one fixation.”
Sometimes she is beckoned by engineers (Swedish engineer Pelle Gustavsson wanted to hear his bridge—the RAMA VIII in Bangkok—played like Jimi Hendrix), but mostly, it’s the bridges themselves that do all the beckoning.
Rose shaped the Glebe Island’s pows and pops into a 4-track mix for ABC radio (it would later turn up in Alessio Cavallaro’s Sounds in Space Audioteque at Australia’s MCA). “I try to choose parts that are interesting and representative of each bridge,” says Rose. “I’m always surprised every time I listen to a new bridge. Something I think is very funny is that bridges very often sound like the place they’re from. For example, Scandinavian ones make this kind of icy, tinkling noise.”
Her recordings, recently collected in Singing Bridges Vibrations: Variations (Sonic ArtStar), range from lightly edited field recordings to sophisticated ambient electronic remixes done by a cast of international musicians like Jacob Kirkegaard (Denmark), Gintas K (Lithuania), and Francisco Lopez (Spain). The collaborating artists meld and play with Rose’s material, twisting loops and repetitions, dance beats, and industrial rumbles out of her recordings.
She welcomes all companions on the journey to interpret, understand, and appreciate the music of bridges. When she talks about other bridge artists she is excited and supportive—even when their approaches appear entirely different from her own. (Such as Bertolozzi’s, which will cost an estimated $1.8 million and uses the mid-Hudson bridge as an über drum kit, hitting its road signs, cables, and towers with wooden dowels and rubber mallets. He recently told a New York Times reporter, “I only play big instruments.”)
Compared to the musicians’ remixes, Rose’s pieces are much sparser, carefully selected and edited with few effects. You get the sense that she is listening very carefully, hesitant to obscure the songs of the bridge with musical manipulation. She also produces segments for ABC radio, which is unsurprising. She has the characteristics of an excellent interviewer—a combination of focused enthusiasm and intent listening that draws out even the most taciturn subject. It seems that if anyone is going to extract music from the secretive steel of a suspension bridge, it would be Jodi Rose.
And though the sounds of bridge cables are otherwise obtainable, “The frequency could be manufactured on any ordinary synthesizer,” admits Rose. Imitations are besides the point, for the project strives “not merely to hear, but to listen to what is really there.”
The Secret Life of Bridges
“The idea that their vibrations may contain some secret language, a hidden key…fascinates and excites me,” Rose writes. She cites the abstract filmmaker Oscar Fishinger: “Everything has a spirit, and that spirit can be released by setting whatever it is into vibration.”
Such ideas form the basis of architectural sound, a sub-genre of sound art that pushes architecture into new, and largely unexplored, aural territory. Architectural sound demands the consideration of environmental soundscapes, posits the possibility of sonic remnants, and argues that architectural spaces are greater than their structural components and visual imprints. And what better architectural space to explore than bridges, symbolic as they are of transformation, connection, and communication? “People have such an emotional resonance with bridges,” says Rose. “They love them. They are outside of the realm of normal life. It puts you in kind of a dreamy state.”
Before my encounter with Singing Bridges, I too considered bridges dreamy, but in a more or less ho-hum kind of way. Like so many marvels (ocean sunsets, grazing elk, hot-air balloons), I’d been desensitized to their power and wonder by their frequent appearances in insurance calendars, travel brochures, and screen savers. Their picturesqueness was overwhelming, squelching alternate experiences or interpretations. I also live in a city—San Francisco—with one of the world’s most picturesque bridges, the Golden Gate. For me, traversing bridges was merely pretty, and if done by foot amid tourists, a little embarrassing.
Listening to Rose’s recording of the Golden Gate changed that. Both Rose’s original and Kirkegaard’s remix “Golden Resonance” are filled with tense, zinging pops offset by a deeper, somewhat ominous undertone. It’s oddly compelling but it makes me uneasy. I find that I want to turn it off and yet I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Listening, I remember the hypnotic feeling that surges up on crossings, watching the bay meet the swirling waters of the ocean and the dramatic arc of the brightly colored cables. For reasons unknown but much speculated upon (its abnormally low four-foot safety rail, or the irresistibility of its location at continent’s end, a quality New Yorker writer Tad Friend referred to as “fatal grandeur”), the Golden Gate is the world’s most popular suicide location.
“There is some awful tension to bridges that is kind of like a circus highwire,” says Rose. “You almost want them to fall to relieve the tension. I have a friend who has very bad vertigo and it’s a very eerie thing every time she drives over a bridge. She almost wants to drive over the edge just to relieve that tension.” Gephyrophobia, fear of bridges, is not an entirely uncommon problem. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland—a daunting 4.3 miles long—is so feared that the Maryland Transit Authority established a free program in which drivers could call ahead to have someone else drive their car over the bridge. It became so popular that the authority could no longer meet demand. (Two private companies now run the program; it is no longer free.)
For a surprisingly satisfying study in the dynamics of bridge tension and release, a great favorite of Rose’s is the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state, an infamous engineering faux pas. Built in 1940, the bridge quickly earned the nickname Galloping Gertie for its nauseating, roller-coaster like undulations; they were such that drivers reported cars ahead of them temporarily disappearing from view on the drive across (Gertie’s resonance was transverse, meaning she buckled length-wise).
Less than six months after opening, Gertie burst free, or collapsed, depending on which way you look at it. Extremely lightweight, a relatively gentle wind of 40 mph left her swinging from side to side like a hammock in a hurricane. When her two sides twisted in opposite directions, the cables snapped. Fortunately, the only fatality was a dog named Tubby. (The entire incident was captured on film; it comes up easily with a Google search.) “There is something very poetic about this image of the bridge shaking free and the spirit very much released,” reflects Rose. Indeed, it is a most pleasant catastrophe to observe. It resolves the conflict inherent in any great architectural feat: the precarious submission of nature to man.
When the Golden Gate opened, the ode-obsessed Strauss boasted, “Here nature, free since time began / Yields to the restless moods of man.” Nature proved rather bad at yielding—the Golden Gate must be painted its trademark shade of International Orange almost continuously to stave off rust.
“Bridges are harmonious.” Rose offers. “They come from a desire to create something that adds to society. But they always seem to be a crazy, romantic dream. They’re always testing the latest technology in the universe. There is the myth of the devil’s bridge: A bridge is being built and either the technological challenge is too great or the bridge cannot be finished in time. The builder is distraught. The devil says, ‘I can make it happen if you give me the first soul that crosses.’ Generally, the builder agrees, the bridge goes up, and the builder sends a cat or a goat to cross first, tricking the devil—there is this idea that building a bridge crosses nature, and therefore demands a human sacrifice.”
“If you’re paying attention, you are changed by your passage over the bridge,” says Rose. Just this past Sunday, I crossed the Golden Gate for the first time since talking to her. I paid attention. And though I wouldn’t say that the experience was transformative, I did feel the state of flux—a potentially liberating neither-here-nor-thereness.
A self-described nomad, Rose is neither here in the US nor over there in Australia. She currently resides in Germany, a relocation she calls “as permanent as I can imagine.” Recently, she’s been devoting her artistic energies to writing a travel diary and toying with the idea of a cabaret burlesque symphony “Tom Waits meets Gogol Bordello,” featuring all the characters she’s come across during the bridge project.
“I think the thing I’ve enjoyed the most about the Singing Bridges project is the interactions it’s allowed me to have,” she reflects. She spends a lot of time thinking about these interactions now. Bridges have a way of drawing people in, and she’s spent years drawing bridges out. Shelter from the storm, a study in aesthetics, a receptacle that captures the soul of the universe or the souls of its inhabitants — of all the things architecture can be, perhaps its most compelling role is as a meeting ground where we share our experiences, our emotions, our sins, and ourselves.