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Original Pressings – Jodi Rose (Singing Bridges) Interview

January 21, 2010

Australian artist Jodi Rose talks to Garry McKenzie about singing bridges, bemused engineers and her role in creating the largest ʻorchestraʼ in the world.

WHEN the $55.5m Eleanor Schonell Bridge opened in late 2006, it offered pedestrians a much more beguiling experience than your average river crossing. The structure, which connects Dutton Park to the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Brisbane, is a 400-metre long cable-stayed bridge and is the first bridge in Australia to be designed exclusively for use by buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. However, this is not the only first the bridge can claim. It is also the only bridge in the world to contain a permanent sound art installation which allows pedestrians to hear the bridge sing.

Australian artist and writer Jodi Rose has spent over a decade recording bridges sing around the world, from Berlin to Vietnam. She has presented her recordings in galleries and as performance pieces, either without manipulation, or as the basis of new electronic compositions. So when she was approached by bridge developers the John Holland Group to submit a proposal for a sound art piece as part of the design of the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, she jumped at the chance. “I was attracted by the philosophy of the bridge, which is designed with ecological principles in mind,” she said. “And, of course, the cables always call out to me to hear them sing.”

At first the concept of a bridge singing may seem perplexing. It is also a little ironic given that the Eleanor Schonell Bridge was met with resistance by several local action groups who were concerned about, amongst other things, the increased levels of traffic noise buses would generate in the local area. Yet those same buses, together with cyclists, pedestrians and the weather also create within the bridge intricate sounds inaudible to the human ear.

When viewed from afar, suspension and cable-stayed bridges – that is, bridges that rely on cables for stability – resemble giant harps. In stringed instruments, sound is created when strings are plucked or struck, causing them to vibrate. In a similar way, wind and traffic cause the cables on the bridges to vibrate, although the sounds these vibrations emit are often too quiet to be heard on their own. It’s these sounds Ms Rose records and amplifies to create her bridge songs.

As each cable has a unique sound Ms Rose has learnt how to “play” bridges as if they were giant instruments. “I certainly don’t expect everyone to enjoy the sounds that the bridge makes,” she said. “Or to listen to them as music, although I find them musical and beautiful myself, as I can hear patterns and rhythms and textures in the sound, which for me express something about the essence of the bridge.”

Ms Rose made her first bridge recordings in 1995, teaming up with ABC Classic FM’s The Listening Room. “The first bridge I recorded was Glebe Island Bridge (now Anzac Bridge) in Sydney, and the RTA Chief Engineer, Peter Wellings, ran down the stairs with a two foot high model of the bridge in his hands and said ‘It’s God on the line for you!’” Ms Rose remembers. “I had written a fairly out-there letter, saying the sound of the cables is the voice of the divine, which obviously sparked his interest enough to allow me access to record them while the bridge was still under construction.”

The resulting sounds were edited into a sound piece called “Song to Dissolve the World”, an excerpt of which can be heard on Ms Rose’s website, http://www.singingbridges.net. The piece recalls nostalgic space-aged electronic bleeps, muted industrial percussion, and even the echoing deep-sea ambience of whale-songs without the new-age novelty that that suggests. Sounds thud, bleep and chitter with the same calming randomness as wind chimes. Since these initial recordings, Ms Rose has travelled the world recording bridges, such as the Novy Most Bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the My Thuan Bridge at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. She has also recorded such famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Millennium Footbridge in London.

“I am always completely intrigued and excited whenever I get to play with a new bridge, and find the sounds unique and fascinating,” Rose said. “Even on those days when it’s been a long hard road to get there, something about the secret voice of the bridge is incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating.” Listening to a sample of Ms Rose’s recordings, it is easy to hear the unique sound of each bridge. The My Thuan Bridge clangs with a metallic intensity, recalling the gongs and percussion of Southeast Asia, while the Maatinkaari Bridge in Helsinki, Finland, clicks and booms, as the regularity of sound gives the suggestion of someone playing a percussive rhythm on one of the biggest drum kits in the world.

One of her recent bridge visits took place in Hong Kong. “The Hong Kong Highways Department engineers generously took me on a tour of the bridge, including up the top of the pylons, which was completely spectacular, but we didn’t get access to the cables,” she said. “There is no pedestrian walkway, which is how I usually mike (the cables) up. To place the microphones or accelerometers (vibration detectors) on from the top of the cable would require serious rigging and official permissions.

“This is one of the very few bridges I have visited worldwide and not listened to – the other being the Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, which is illegal to stop on and also has no pedestrian access. Engineers, architects and council workers have tended to be bemused at first, and some of them even quite sceptical.”

However, despite such scepticism, the artist is grateful various bridge authorities have given her the opportunity to change their minds. “The Vibration Analysis/Special Projects Development engineer who came out with me on the Industrial Ring Road Bridge in Bangkok earlier this year was very certain that we wouldn’t find anything useful in the vibration, as there is too much ‘noise’. But the bridge and I managed to convince him, and I’m waiting to hear back about the possible engineering developments from that exchange.”

Such support has meant the Eleanor Schonell Bridge is, as far as Ms Rose is aware, the first bridge in the world to incorporate a permanent sound installation. The installation will allow the ultimate realisation of her work: the creation of a global bridge orchestra.
“I am doing my research and preparation now for the global symphony of bridges, and plan to utilise the in-house systems, installed on many new bridges for monitoring, whenever I can. Since beginning this project I have become aware of at least half a dozen people around the world who make recordings of bridge vibrations, and hope to facilitate all of their work coming together as part of the global symphony,” she said.

While the specifics are yet to be worked out, Ms Rose muses on her website that a typical performance could see a bridge played in accompaniment to simultaneous performances which are broadcasted over the Internet from other bridge sites. But, while the bridges resemble huge musical instruments, Ms Rose has yet to decide whether musicians should play them by interacting with the cables. “This is a philosophical and aesthetic decision that I’m still working on. Mostly I would like the vibration in the bridge to happen ‘naturally’ through wind, weather, strain and traffic. For certain performances, I can definitely see some form of intervention with the cables, there are various possibilities for orchestrating and directing this,” she said.

For now, Brisbane and the Eleanor Schonell Bridge represent the first concrete step to realise her world-wide dream, though it wasn’t without the usual bemused reactions. “Once on-site, some of the engineers and construction workers were fairly amused by the whole project,” she said. “But that’s fine with me, I’m happy to engage people through humour, and if it gives someone a glimpse of a different perception of the world, or just the bridge, for a moment, that is enough.”

This interview was originally undertaken for the Source, an online newspaper produced by the journalism students at the University of Queensland. To be frank the student sub-editors butchered the life out of the published article (to be fair, they were learning after all, and now probably have far better media careers than I…)

Later, Jodi Rose contacted me, asking for permission to publish the article in The Scream Online magazine, which I gladly provided. This allowed me to re-edit my original version.

Sadly, since this time, the Scream has merely published a placeholder saying “Jodi Rose at the Brooklyn Bridge, Coming Soon”. I’m not sure what happened, but here, rather belatedly, is the Scream version of the interview.

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