Here is our little quiz for today. What is possibly the largest wind instrument in the world? I am sure you can immediately think of a number of vast instruments, the Wagner tuba, the ophicleide, the Alphorn, or some enormous pipe organ. These would all be good guesses, but the correct answer turns out to be the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
How can that be, I hear you say, it’s a bridge, albeit a very famous one. About three years ago, the district installed new slates in the bridge railings in order to make the structure more aerodynamic in high winds. Almost immediately, the bridge was starting to make humming sounds that have been described as both “a wheezing kazoo” and “a ghostly chant.” Residents on the western side of San Francisco have complained that the noise on windy days reminds them of the kind of sound jailers use to torture prisoners. The constant humming is driving people mad, and a team of engineers has begun work on silencing the murmuring bridge.
Nate Mercereau: Golden Gate Bridge Duet
Los Angeles guitarist and songwriter Nate Mercereau read about the humming bridge in the San Francisco Chronicle. And when he heard a recording of the sounds coming from the bride, he “knew there was potential to reframe these sounds as something unique and beautiful.” Mercereau traveled to the Bay Area, and teaming up with a local sound engineer, recorded four duets by layering the sounds of the bridge over melodic improvisations fed through his guitar synthesizer.
“There is nothing quite like hearing something so vastly large make that much sound powered by nature,” the artist explains. “The tones smear and crescendo as the wind picks up, and it gets so loud that at some points you can feel your own body vibrate with it.” The project was titled Duets/Golden Gate and it includes a stunning video. The artist is saddened by the prospect of “his duet partner will be going silent, since this sound won’t last forever; it is unique and very special.”
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco and California. Designed by Joseph Strauss in 1917, it was called “possibly the most beautiful bridge in the world.” And it has featured in a number of musical tributes, including the 2nd String Quartet “Opus California,” by Sally Beamish.
Sally Beamish: String Quartet No. 2, “Opus California,” – II. Golden Gate
Sally Beamish: String Quartet No. 2, “Opus California,” – II. Golden Gate (Emperor Quartet)
Hailing from Stirlingshire, Beamish receives commissions from the USA, Japan, and Australia, and from most European countries. Critics have suggested that much of her work “is informed by an intimate interaction between players, and the creation of colors by placing solo instruments in different relationships.” Her “Opus California” dates from 2000 and takes its original inspiration from the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 4 string quartet. In addition, Beamish returned from a festival in California and was “greatly impressed by the directness and honest approach taken by twentieth-century American music.”
The composer explains, “I took Beethoven’s first subject, first bridge passage, second subject and second bridge passage respectively as the material for four very simple movements. I mention the technical term ‘bridge passage’ (a section that takes the listener from the first melody of the piece to the second) because two movements are based on passages describing two bridges, among them the Golden Gate.” The famous bridge is musically seen through the early morning mist from a plane.
Hubert Klyne Headley: California Suite “Golden Gate”
Hubert Klyne Headley: California Suite “Golden Gate” (Russian Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.)
The American composer, pianist, and organist Hubert Klyne Headley (1906-1996) was born in West Virginia but moved to California as a child. For the inauguration of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, the Standard Oil Company commissioned a dedicated composition from Headley. The California Suite moves through a smoothly linked series of emotionally charged episodes “employing a dynamic use of the brass choir.” The movement entitled “Golden Gate” provides an impressionist depiction of the sights and sounds of San Francisco; the haunting calls of foghorns in the Bay, the ships, the celebrations, and the martial history.
Alexandre Desplat: Godzilla, “Golden Gate Chaos”
As we have heard in the Nate Mercereau duets, the Golden Gate Bridge continues to inspire the most delightful artistic expressions. I suppose we could include the 2014 version of Godzilla in that category? The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat includes the very aptly named, “Golden Gate Chaos.” No doubt, there is plenty of humming and drama involving the Golden Gate to come in the future; we can’t wait.
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