How One Man Made The Eiffel Tower Sing

May 8, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 10:42 am

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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Believe it or not, we're listening to the Eiffel Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG, "A THOUSAND FEET OF SOUND")

BLOCK: Each one of these sounds was collected by turning the Paris monument into a giant percussion instrument. From the basement to the summit, the Eiffel Tower's girders, railings and rivets were banged, tapped, strummed and thumped.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG, "A THOUSAND FEET OF SOUND")

BLOCK: And then those 10,000 samples were layered into one composition. "Tower Music" is the creation of composer Joseph Bertolozzi, who joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI: I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: And why don't you go ahead and describe the method of all of this? How did you harvest these sounds?

BERTOLOZZI: Well, we would determine what surface we wanted to sample and we would 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 try to find the - you know, the best sounds that would work. It took me four months to catalog.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG, "GLASS FLOOR RHYTHMS")

BERTOLOZZI: When I went and recorded the sounds, I wasn't really looking for anything in particular. I just said, OK, we're just going to record every surface we have and I'll turn it into music later on. Turning it into music was the easy part. It was all the permissions and everything else leading up to it that made it a challenge.

BLOCK: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I mean, how did you go about getting somebody to say, OK, yes, you can climb all over the Eiffel Tower and attach microphones and do - and record all those sounds?

BERTOLOZZI: 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.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

BERTOLOZZI: You don't have that kind of insurance.

BLOCK: Yeah.

BERTOLOZZI: And I sent them this detailed document as to all the surfaces I wanted play, and it came back - like, almost everything was no, no, no. And 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 and climbing out to them. But he took me on a tour of the tower and he said, see this surface that you marked here? It's over here. You're standing next to it if you're standing on the second floor. If you think about it, you don't have to climb out to get it and you're safer on a floor or a deck or the stairs.

BLOCK: So you had plenty to work with.

BERTOLOZZI: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG)

BLOCK: Are there any effects that are added to these sounds?

BERTOLOZZI: Not at all. You're hearing the raw samples of the tower. That's the real aesthetic of this piece. I mean, if I was to put all kinds of processing and 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.

BLOCK: Does the Eiffel Tower have a particular key or a particular pitch?

BERTOLOZZI: I'd have to say no, but it doesn't have all the notes of the scale. Like, a piano has - you know, from the lowest to the highest, it has all the half-tones, the white and black keys. The tower doesn't have that. It just has these 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.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a track that has a really beautiful sort of floaty (ph), bubbly, melodic sound. It's called "The Elephant On The Tower."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG, "THE ELEPHANT ON THE TOWER")

BLOCK: And there are parts of this, Joseph, 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?

BERTOLOZZI: When the Eiffel Tower was first built, it was built for a world exposition. And 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, like, sort of like a minimalist kind of vibe going on, and then I insert an Indonesian Gamelan-type melodic and rhythmic materials. And they really meld together very nicely.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH BERTOLOZZI SONG, "CONTINUUM")

BLOCK: Out of all of these thousands and thousands of samples taken all over the Eiffel Tower, is there one that you think of as the most beautiful sound you recorded?

BERTOLOZZI: Yeah, there was this railing just below the summit, and it just rang like this sort of combination bell and tuning fork.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILING RINGING)

BERTOLOZZI: That's it.

BLOCK: Oh, that's nice.

BERTOLOZZI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILING RINGING)

BERTOLOZZI: It's rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILING RINGING)

BLOCK: What about the most elusive sound you tried to record?

BERTOLOZZI: The neck of the tower - there's, like, nothing around you. It's just like catwalks - stairs going up and down. And while it might be, like, 60 degrees down on the ground level with a nice, gentle, breeze, 1,000 feet up in the air it's 20, 30 degrees colder and the wind is blowing, like, at 20, 30 miles an hour. So we had to, like, lean into 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL RINGING)

BLOCK: All the work that went into that one little sound.

BERTOLOZZI: Exactly.

BLOCK: I'm thinking when you were up there recording on the Eiffel Tower, at some point you must have looked around you, looked out over the city of Paris and thought, this has got to be the best recording studio ever.

BERTOLOZZI: (Laughter) 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.

BLOCK: That's Joseph Bertolozzi. His new album called "Tower Music" has just been released. Joseph, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

BERTOLOZZI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.