ALBUM REVIEW: Tower Music by Joseph Bertolozzi

by Maggie Molloy

Though it was originally constructed as an entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower quickly became a cultural icon. To this day, it is an architectural marvel, a historical monument, a work of art, and—a musical instrument? According to composer and organist Joseph Bertolozzi, yes. Yes it is.

photo credit: Blue Wings Press

Bertolozzi recently released Tower Music, a new album entirely composed and performed using only the sounds of the Eiffel Tower itself. That’s right: melodies, harmonies, foreground, background, contrast, color, counterpoint—and all using only the Eiffel Tower as an instrument. No effects, no amplification, and no electronic processing.

How did Bertolozzi do it? Well, first he raised $40,000 from private donors and convinced the Eiffel Tower administration that he was a legitimate musician. Lucky for him, Paris has a long history of investing in contemporary music—the city is actually home to Pierre Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, a one-of-a-kind research institute devoted to the study of avant-garde music and sound exploration.

But back to the Eiffel Tower: Bertolozzi and his team recorded over 10,000 samples from the Tower’s various surfaces. They then catalogued the samples by tone and location, whittled the collection down to a mere 2,800 sound samples, and assembled them into a virtual instrument from which Bertolozzi’s vision could be turned into sound. Sound ambitious? It was.

But of course, Bertolozzi is no newbie to public sound-art installations. In 2007 he released an album titled Bridge Music, comprised entirely of sounds created from New York’s Mid-Hudson Bridge. The album quickly entered the Billboard Classical Crossover Music Chart—so for Bertolozzi, playing the Eiffel Tower was just the logical next step.

The album begins with “A Thousand Feet of Sound,” a five-minute overture exploring the Tower’s entire aural array—layering earthy, thumping basslines with the lightning-fast, tinny clinking of the Tower’s fences and panels. “The Harp That Pierced the Sky” employs quite a different sonic palette, enveloping the listener in an intimate sound world of sparse musical textures, metallic echoes, soft percussive melodies, and plenty of silence.

The next piece on the album draws not just from the Tower’s aural fabric, but also from its historical influence. At the 1889 World’s Fair, Indonesian musicians introduced the Javanese gamelan to Europe, profoundly influencing Western music (and in particular, Parisian composers like Debussy and Ravel). Bertolozzi’s “Continuum” pays tribute to this profound moment in music history, combining exotic gamelan motifs with contemporary post-minimalist gestures to meld the ancient music of Indonesia with the music of the modern age.

Bertolozzi’s “Prelude” and “Ironworks” weave together Afro-Carribbean musical influences with circling melodies and industrial-strength rhythmic cadences, while “The Elephant on the Tower” features a gentle, lilting waltz inspired by the oldest elephant in the world, who ascended to the first level of the Tower in 1948 with the Bouglione Circus.

But the album is not just about the history of the Tower, it’s also about the present and the future. “Glass Floor Rhythms” takes its inspiration from the varying rhythms and patterns of visitors to the Eiffel Tower’s glass floor, which was installed in just 2014, and “Evening Harmonies” takes an avant-garde, introspective look at Tower’s sounds themselves, unshackled by any of Western music’s melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic expectations.

The title track brings Bertolozzi’s magnum opus to a close with a (literal) bang, featuring a bold and bass-heavy eruption of industrial melodies and fearlessly dynamic, muscular rhythmic themes. And to top it all off, at the end of the album Bertolozzi includes an audio tour of the Tower to help you locate the different tones, timbres, and musical textures used throughout.

Because after all, everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower looks like—but for the first time in over a century, now we are able to hear it.