Composer Joseph Bertolozzi’s latest musical project turned the Eiffel Tower into a giant percussion instrument. From the basement to the summit, the Paris monument’s girders, railings, and rivets were banged, tapped, strummed and thumped. And then, those 10,000 samples were layered into one composition, called Tower Music.
Bertolozzi spoke with NPR’s Melissa Block about the process. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.
Melissa Block: Could you describe the method of all of this? How did you harvest these sounds?
Joseph Bertolozzi: Well, we would determine what surface we wanted to sample, and we’d put a contact microphone, which picks up vibrations from the thing it’s attached to, rather than sound in the air. And then I went through all those samples and tried to find the best sounds that would work. It took me four months to catalog.
When I went looking for sounds, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I just said, okay, we’re going to record every surface we have, and I’ll turn it into music later on. Turning it into music was the easy part; all the permissions, and everything else leading up to it, made it a challenge.
How did you go about getting somebody to say, “Okay, yes, you can climb all over the Eiffel Tower and attach microphones and record all those sounds”?
They were very gracious. I, of course, was ready to have to do some actual climbing, but they said, “No, no; you don’t climb. You don’t have that kind of insurance!” And I sent them this detailed document as to all the surfaces I wanted to play, and almost everything was, “No, no no.” I went there to meet the chief engineer, and he said, “You know, we crossed all these out because all the places that you showed would involve you in a harness, climbing out to them.” But he took me on a tour of the tower and he said, “See this surface that you marked? It’s over here. You’re standing next to it if you’re standing on the second floor.”
Are there any effects that are added to these sounds?
Not at all. You’re hearing the raw samples of the tower. That’s the real aesthetic of this piece. If I was to put all sorts of processing, echo, and boosting treble and bass and things like that, you wouldn’t be hearing the tower, and that’s the whole point of this project.
Does the Eiffel Tower have a particular key or a particular pitch?
I’d have to say no, but it doesn’t have all the notes of the scale. You know, a piano has — from the lowest to the highest — it has all the half-tones, all the white and black keys. The tower doesn’t have that; it just has this random series of notes. And my job, as a composer, was to take something that was incomplete as an instrument and make it sound as if nothing was missing.
Let’s talk about a track that has a really beautiful, sort of floaty, bubbly melodic sound; it’s called “The Elephant on the Tower.” There are parts of this that sound like a gamelan orchestra from Java or Bali — and it does turn out that there is a connection between the Eiffel Tower and the gamelan. What is that?
When the Eiffel Tower was first built, it was built for a world exposition. It was the first time that a contingent from Indonesia came with their gamelan instruments, and it was the first time, really, that the West was really exposed to it. Claude Debussy was very much influenced by these sounds. There’s actually a piece in Tower Music called “Continuum,” where I have a modern, minimalist vibe going on, and then I insert Indonesian Gamelan-type melodic and rhythmic materials. They really meld together nicely.
What about the most elusive sound you tried to record, the toughest one?
On the neck of the tower, there’s nothing around you. It’s just catwalk stairs going up and down. And while it might be 60 degrees down on the ground level with a nice gentle breeze, a thousand feet up in the air it’s 20 or 30 degrees colder, and the wind is blowing at 20 or 30 miles an hour. So we had to lean in to the wind just to stand upright. I had a stick that I was holding onto blow out of my hands! I caught it, and luckily I had it tethered to my belt, so it wouldn’t have fallen.
I’m thinking, when you’re up there recording on the Eiffel Tower, at some point you must have looked around you over the city of Paris and thought: This has got to be the best recording studio ever!
You are absolutely right. I just couldn’t believe it. For years, the Eiffel Tower was just this little flat screen in my office. And then I finally get there and there’s this huge structure, and it was just exhilarating. Exhilarating.