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AAVC SpotlightJoseph Bertolozzi ’81

This year, the alumnae/i association, AAVC, turns 150. Throughout 2021, the College will be celebrating this anniversary by highlighting a few of Vassar’s most notable alumnae/i in architecture, arts, business, education, entertainment, healthcare, humanitarian efforts, law, social justice, and technology.

Joseph Bertolozzi ’81 records Eiffel Tower sounds in 2013Photo: Franc Palaia

Occupation: Composer and multi-instrumentalist

Calling: Bringing out beautiful music 

Accomplishments: Joseph Bertolozzi, a lifelong resident of Poughkeepsie and son of Italian immigrants, has been a working musician since the age of 16. Just as he did during his student days at Our Lady of Lourdes High School and then Vassar, he still plays organ at various local houses of worship every weekend. But his music has reached well beyond the Hudson Valley, across the Atlantic, and around the world—in a way that is staggeringly unique.

Besides playing at such diverse venues as the Vatican (a rare organ concert) and US Open Tennis Championships (solo percussionist as part of the grounds entertainment), Bertolozzi has created two albums that reached the top 20 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart, Bridge Music (2009) and Tower Music (2016). He also garnered international press coverage for the “instruments” featured on these albums: the Mid-Hudson Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. After a years-long process of researching both structures, fund-raising, and convincing a multitude of officials that he truly was serious, Bertolozzi and a recording crew “harvested” hundreds of notes by tapping on various surfaces all over the bridge and tower—with mallets, drumsticks, and even a padded log. He then used the harvested sounds to compose original music and record the albums.

When asked how he came up with this idea, Bertolozzi says it all started with a kiss in 1975. As a teenager on a European trip with his high school Spanish class, Bertolozzi got a romantic idea when the group stopped in Paris. “While I was there, I said to myself, you know, I may never get back to Paris again. I have to kiss a woman on top of the Eiffel Tower.” He looked around and noticed a member of the group he didn’t really know named Sheila. He recalls thinking, “she’s cute,” and he invited her to climb the tower. Sheila was game. “I gave her a kiss and she kissed me back.”

Flash forward 30 years. Joseph and Sheila Bertolozzi are having a conversation near the framed poster of the Eiffel tower that hangs on their bedroom wall. Joseph had recently been composing and playing music for gongs. “She’s standing by the poster and she started mimicking the way I look when I play,” striking the air with an imaginary set of mallets. “She reached over to the poster and went ‘bong!’ And I said, that could work.”

All told, from inspiration to completion, the Tower Music album took 13 years to produce (with Bridge Music completed along the way as a proof of concept). Yet it’s clear that no amount of bureaucratic or logistical hurdles would have stopped Bertolozzi until it was done. “I just thought it was the coolest idea I ever thought of!” Bertolozzi says, adding that his vision would have been meaningless if he didn’t pursue it. “The difference between coming up with an idea and bringing it to fruition is the difference between a dilettante and an artist,” he says. “I just had to do this, and I wouldn’t feel right about myself if I just gave it up.”

Looking Back: In a way, Bertolozzi’s memories of Vassar are also a set of harvested sounds. “When going late at night to practice the organ at the chapel in winter,” he recalls, “I can still feel and hear my feet walking across the lawn from Main to the chapel, my feet breaking through the top of the ice on the snow going crunch…crunch, and hearing the echo off the chapel come back to me.” Having decided on a composing career at the age of 9, Bertolozzi knew his major would be music. But he was also passionate about architecture and writing, and the courses he took in those subjects were some of his favorites. Professor of Art Richard Pommer and Professor of English Lynn Bartlett, he recalls, were “brilliant, brilliant in their fields and just good people. Lynn would come to my concerts after I graduated and I only had him for one class. Richard Pommer I had for three years. They could take your work and they could diagnose what you did, what you were trying to achieve, and why you didn’t achieve it. And you’d sit there, like, how does he know this?”

Looking Forward: So how do you top transforming the Eiffel Tower into a thousand-foot musical instrument? With a live performance, of course! The Paris Olympics will take place in 2024, and it’s Bertolozzi’s dream to play his Tower Music live on-site with 100 musicians to mark the occasion. He already has the go-ahead from the tower’s administrators and has begun contacting the various Olympics officials who will need to sign off. Raising the more than $10 million needed to stage this performance, he says, will be the hardest part. “It’s probably the most unattainable thing I’ve ever come up with,” he allows somewhat wistfully. He brightens up with a recollection: “Kissing a woman on the Eiffel Tower was probably the second most unattainable thing I could ever do.”

—Kimberly Schaye