Beyond Vassar

Hitting the High Notes

By Andrew Faught

Earlier this year, organist and composer Joseph Bertolozzi ’81 turned the Eiffel Tower into the most unlikely of musical instruments. Equipped with a panoply of rubber mallets, drumsticks, and PVC pipes, Bertolozzi banged out and recorded thousands of notes along the height and breadth of the tower’s steel latticework—as high as 990 feet in the air.

“I’ve created, for lack of a better word, a virtual instrument,” he says. “I want people to hear novelty; I want them to hear music. I want them to say, ‘What was that instrument?’ I’m not asking people to do anything but listen with an open mind.”

This isn’t Bertolozzi’s first foray into nontraditional music. In 2007 and 2008, he composed Bridge Music, musical pieces he created from notes when he used the Mid-Hudson Bridge—which connects Poughkeepsie to Highland—as his percussive instrument. Released in 2009, the Bridge Music CD climbed to No. 18 on Billboard’s classical crossover chart.

Today, Bridge Music listening stations dot the expanse of the construction, and play selections for curious pedestrians. Motorists can also tune in on their radios.

The famed Paris landmark, it turns out, posed decidedly different challenges.

“What the bridge brought to the equation were the vertical suspender cables, which kind of sound like bass guitar strings,” Bertolozzi says. “The Eiffel Tower doesn’t have those, but it does have more varied sounds in the girders and the panels, just because it’s a continuously evolving arc from the bottom to the top.”

“I was a little concerned there might not be enough different kinds of melodic notes,” he adds. “Like anything, once you get there and you’re looking at it up-close, you realize stairs can have a tone, a handrail can have a tone. I really can’t wait to get started writing.”

In the coming months, Bertolozzi will select the most resonant of his recorded notes to compose his Parisian tunes. He hopes to perform a live concert at the Eiffel Tower next year for the landmark’s 125th anniversary.

He first sought permission to play the tower four years ago from the mayor of Paris, writing a letter with help from Christine Reno, professor of French and Francophone studies at Vassar, who translated his request. Finally, in November 2012, Bertolozzi got a meeting with the tower’s lead engineer. Officials approved his request, but with one restriction: He could only access areas that didn’t require harnesses.

From May 27 to June 10 of this year, Bertolozzi and his support crew worked up to 15 hours a day recording notes, an admittedly grueling exercise.

“At any point, somebody could have said, ‘I’ve had it,’” Bertolozzi says with a laugh. “But everybody was so exhilarated to be there and standing in locations that even the workers don’t typically get to. It was just really cool!”

By day, Bertolozzi is music director of St. Joseph’s Church in Middletown, New York, and the Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie. As a kid, he dreamed of becoming a painter or a writer, but his aspirations changed at nine, when he was stuck at home nursing an earache. To help him pass the time, his godfather brought him an album with narrated biographies of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, interspersed with musical samples.

“It was then that I knew I wanted to be a composer,” he says.

As for the Eiffel Tower project, he’s encountered his share of skeptics.

“I usually have to explain it more than once because they think I’m playing an instrument at the Eiffel Tower,” Bertolozzi says. “They’re nodding their heads up and down, but their eyes are saying they don’t really get it. Now, I can point to Bridge Music. That was a definite proof of concept.”

He’s been contacted about playing other landmarks, but Bertolozzi won’t disclose what’s next. He’s too caught up in his current venture. Like thousands before him, the City of Lights has cast on him its romantic thrall.

“Playing the Eiffel Tower is something that’s near and dear to my heart,” Bertolozzi says. “This is like some kind of pipe dream, a fantasy that I’m privileged to be a part of.”

Photos © Franc Palaia