Bridge Music: Joseph Bertolozzi '81
For most Hudson Valley residents, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge simply represents the fastest way to get from one side of the river to the other. For composer Joseph Bertolozzi ’81, it is a vast musical instrument with great sonic potential.
Each cable, spindle, beam, and panel makes a unique sound when played like a percussion instrument, and the bridge’s components serve as an analogy representing a percussion ensemble. Bertolozzi’s plan is to compose a piece called “Bridge Music” for a group of 22 musicians to play live on the bridge as part of the 2009 celebration commemorating Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river in 1609.
“Bridge Music” will take the collection of clunks, clicks, and chimes the bridge produces and turn it into an unprecedented composition that will transform the bridge into an orchestra, and the mountains and rivers into a larger-than-life concert hall. A Native American singer will perform part of the piece facing west toward the rest of America from atop one of the bridge’s towers, with accompaniment by the bridge players. The different movements will combine to become a 45- to 60-minute suite transmitted over loudspeakers to listeners on the Hudson’s banks. The performance will celebrate the Hudson River as well as the bridge, itself a local icon of sorts, with its tall gothic towers and suspension cables visible for miles around.
“The project was always envisioned as a live event,” said Bertolozzi. “Given the access, any person could sample the sounds of a bridge and turn it into a musical piece, but I wanted to put a human fingerprint on this composition. How much more exciting is it to go hear your favorite band or singer perform live than to listen to a recording? You feel a communion being in their presence… it’s not just a theoretical way to make music, but an actual, visceral, exciting way to make and hear it.”
Bertolozzi’s original idea for the “Bridge Music” project came after a performance of his percussion ensemble The Bronze Collection, which consists of more than 60 gongs and cymbals from around the world. Bertolozzi and his wife, Sheila, walked by a poster of the Eiffel Tower, where they met and first kissed, and “Sheila whimsically made a gong-striking gesture toward it,” he said. “I considered what she had just done for a moment and thought to myself, ‘You know, that would work!’” However, Bertolozzi does not speak French and has no connections in Paris, so he set out looking for a monument in the United States that would be suitable. “A suspension bridge seemed to be the right direction to go in,” he said. “The Mid-Hudson Bridge had all the attributes I was looking for — it was an elegant structure, monumental but not gargantuan, had sidewalks where the musicians could safely stand, and was situated in a beautiful, natural setting.” The Mid-Hudson Bridge was built from 1925 to 1930 and was designed by engineer Ralph Modjeski, who was also a skilled pianist. So, in a way, Bertolozzi’s project is bringing the bridge back to its own roots.
The project plans have now been in the works for some time, and have involved cooperation with a number of different people (musicians, sound engineers, bridge engineers) and groups associated with the bridge. Bertolozzi obtained permission from the New York State Bridge Authority to use the bridge, and is also working with the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission. He was met with skepticism at first, but after producing a sample called “Bridge Funk” and explaining his concept, Bertolozzi gained support for what will end up being a complex and expensive project. (He estimates the cost at around $2 million.)
Bertolozzi is no stranger to the ins and outs of composing and producing music. He graduated from Vassar with a degree in music composition and theory and is now an organist and choral director at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie and Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Mount Kisco. He has played at venues ranging from the U.S. Tennis Open to the Vatican and lives in Beacon with his wife and daughter. He maintains friendships with some of his music professors at Vassar, visits the Music Library in Skinner Hall of Music for research and recreational reading, and continues to reflect fondly on his experience as a student here. “I went to Vassar looking for a liberal arts education rather than a conservatory experience,” he said, and still remembers some of his favorite classes in geology, architecture, and English. And Vassar continues to support him through one alumna’s patronage. Margaret Loizeaux Engel ’53 has commissioned some of Bertolozzi’s largest works, including Suite Poughkeepsie composed for the bicentennial of the city’s founding, and which Engel dedicated to her mother-in-law Lillian Rauth Engel ’10.
Though Bertolozzi is also a percussionist, his first and main instrument is the pipe organ. He remembers: “I spent many late nights practicing at the Vassar chapel, crunching across the snow in the winter as I walked over from Main. So, as you can see, whether it’s playing the pipe organ or a rig of 60 gongs or a suspension bridge, I have a predilection for large instruments!”