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Left Edge Percussion after the premiere performance of Joseph Bertolozzi’s "Tower Music" on Thursday at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University. From left, Reed Bentley, Emily Lindley, Michell Carlstrom, Composer Joseph Bertolozzi, Jenny Gray and Artistic Director Terry Longshore. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella

‘Tower Music’ a towering achievement in sound

Percussionists have a beat, a rhythm in their hands and feet, in their minds and souls. They are rarely still and will pound on anything that makes a sound, even objects that barely give a whisper. New York composer Joseph Bertolozzi is compelled to make music from buildings and bridges and premiered his latest composition, “Tower Music : Musique de la Tour” this week at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University.

Performed by Left Edge Percussion, a contemporary percussionist group under the direction of Terry Longshore, “Tower Music” is the sound of the Eiffel Tower.

Left Edge’s percussionists, Terry Longshore, Reed Bentley, Michell Carlstrom, Jenny Gray and Emily Lindley played 85 instruments clustered into five groups during the 45-minute performance of “Tower Music.”

As a pre-concert introduction, a video played over head, showing how Bertolozzi collected sounds and thought through how he would use the sounds to make music. He spoke of how the process was the opposite of a traditional compositional approach that would use an instrument to approach the idea of a sound that might be heard or imagined. Instead, Bertolozzi used the actual sounds of the Eiffel Tower to develop a score that could be performed by percussionists.

Bertolozzi experimented with the Mid-Hudson Bridge almost 10 years ago, collecting the sounds of the steel, concrete, wire spans and rivets to compose “Bridge Music.” Not content with playing a bridge, Bertolozzi wanted to play the Eiffel Tower.

Using strategically placed microphones to record the sounds of sticks, logs, hammers, beads and chains resonating on the various surfaces of the Eiffel Tower’s structure, Bertolozzi collected more than 10,000 sounds. At each physical point of impact, he marked the beam or concrete or strand of wire mesh with a musical note.

“We cataloged 10,000 sounds,” Bertolozzi said at the world premiere of “Tower Music.” “I whittled those down to 2,800 musical notes and I cut that in half to 1,200 go-to notes and used the other half to mix up the sounds.”

Bertolozzi scored those notes into a concert of nine movements for five percussionists and, by that time, knew the notes so well he could write the sounds of the Eiffel Tower without hearing them. A log pounding on the steel foundation of the tower was a bass drum. He coded pings of a metal pipe as a glockenspiel, great crashes on metal could be produced by cymbals and percussion mallets playing on wire mesh screens were xylophones and marimbas.

There are no extraneous sounds or ambient noises in “Tower Music,” just the music of the Tower.

The first movement, “A Thousand Feet of Sound” is pure excitement, and seemed to run from the base of the tower to its height, the City of Light spreading below, people watching with curiosity and exhilaration. The marimbas are spotlighted for the second movement, “The Harp That Pierced the Sky.” Soft, almost random sounds float in the wind, maybe rain, maybe a bird, before fading into the darkness.

“Prelude,” too was soft, but in this movement, the sound glimmered with anticipation for “Ironworks,” heavy and strong, crashing with cymbals and base drums. The finale movement, “Tower Music,” was a 10-minute display of every aspect of the Eiffel Tower, from the thunder and storms of snare drums and cymbals to the delicate synchronization of marimba as the storms slip away, becoming distant in the night.

SOU percussionist Longshore has played a cactus and brought forth its ethereal pulse. He’s conducted dozens of musicians who stood in an arc to bring forth stunning music from toasters and other kitchen appliances. That Longshore can organize a performance of 82 instruments played by just five musicians and evoke the sounds collected at the Eiffel Tower, well, OK then. I know that he would do it, and that it would be a remarkable experience. And it was.

“Tower Music : Musique de la Tour,” is extraordinary and calls forth a wealth of musical traditions — soft jazz, calypso, big band sounds. Often, though, the sounds form a fully new and unique tradition, the sounds of an historic wrought iron structure constructed in 1889. The idea, that a building, bridge or other structure is constructed with not only iron, steel and concrete, but also composed of sound is astonishing. That these sounds can be codified, so that a structure’s sounds can be shared as music is genius.

Bertolozzi has scored a “Tower Music” work for 100 percussionists that could be performed physically on the Eiffel Tower. He hopes this live performance can be conducted for the 2024 Paris Olympics, and Left Edge percussionists want to be there, playing the Eiffel Tower’s singular music.

For more information on “Tower Music” and how Joseph Bertolozzi finds the sounds of a structure, visit www.JosephBertolozzi.com. For more information on Left Edge Percussion and upcoming events at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University, visit OCA.SOU.edu.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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