Thursday, May 14, 2009

Playing the Golden Gate Bridge as a Musical Instrument

It was mid evening, in August of 1975. San Francisco was still the ‘cool, grey city of love,’ still pulsing with an influx of flower children coming west to find the love. The City was poised unaware at the beginning of disco frenzy, cocaine madness and the AIDS epidemic. Drugs were still cheap and sex was still safe. It was a brief moment of unbridled exuberance.

I lived in a small two-room apartment over a print shop on Fillmore between Pine and California streets in San Francisco, a true artist garret. A few weeks earlier a shipment of equipment had arrived from Japan; two reel-to-reel tape recorders, a quadraphonic amplifier with four speakers, two battery operated portable mixing boards, assorted wires and cables, and a portable, battery-operated cassette recorder, the latest in high tech gear. I was setting up the equipment in preparation for working on the sound track to a unique documentary of the best of NASA’s moon-shot footage put to music, the worlds’ first truly extra-terrestrial film. "Spaceborne," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977.

It was close to 10 PM when the phone rang. It was my friend, Michael Phillips. Michael had been a close friend for a number of years and he was always coming up with interesting things to do and people to meet. This time was no exception. He asked me if I was going to be up for a while, he wanted to drop by with a friend of his and he said, rather cryptically, that he wanted to use my new portable cassette recorder for an experiment. Half and hour later he arrived with a lanky, tossel-haired fellow name Arnie Lazarus in tow.

Michael explained that Arnie had recently invented and built a small, battery operated piezoelectric transducer. A transducer is a device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy—like a microphone. Arnie’s invention was a very sensitive ‘pickup’ for attaching to a guitar or any other acoustic instrument in order to amplify the sound through a sound system. He produced from his coat pocket a small red metal box with the word ‘FRAP’ printed on on it. The small box had a black volume knob and two audio jacks, one input and one output. Michael was carrying a tabloid-sized copy of the first issue of a new weekly magazine called “Music Works, A Manual for Musicians,” edited by Diane Rapaport whose husband worked for Arnie Lazarus. On the cover was a picture of an alien robot plucking the Golden Gate Bridge as though it were a harp. The illustration was drawn by the talented artist, David Wills.

The “FRAP” or Flat Response Audio Pickup, Arnie explained, was actually a 'three dimensional' transducer housed in a 1 inch by ¼ inch Lucite rectangle, the sum of which gave an accurate representation of any waveform with almost no distortion. The Lucite transducer was attached by a 3-foot cord with a mini plug to the metal box which contained the battery and circuit housing. The housing itself was a 4 by 2 by 1-inch metal container with a standard ¼ inch output jack, initially to be plugged into a guitar amplifier. But Michael and Arnie had another use for the FRAP that night.

Waving the newspaper, Michael said, “With Arnie’s device and your portable cassette recorder we can record and listen to the ‘strings’ of the Golden Gate Bridge and hear what they actually sound like.”

With David Wills' compelling vision of the robot plucking the bridge strings in our minds we packed up the equipment, bundled into warm jackets and set out into the night.

It was a typical San Francisco Summer night, foggy and cold. As we approached the south end of the bridge we could see that the gate was closed. It was after 11 PM and no one was around as the weather was uncomfortably chilly. We decided to check out the north end of the bridge. Sure enough, the gate was wide open. Parking at Vista Point we walked back toward the bridge, three guys in heavy coats with one guy carrying a box (the cassette recorder) with wires coming out—the FRAP and the headset. Arnie was wearing a long winter coat, typical of someone from New York, which is where he came from. Michael had a navy P-coat buttoned up tight against the cold and I was wearing my old Army jacket with a peace symbol stitched to one shoulder and buttons from various music events attached. We had also brought my large wooden sculptor’s mallet in order to have something with which to excite the cables. The wind was still gusting through the Gate, blowing wisps of summer fog eastward toward the Oakland hills. The north gate to the bridge was still open.

As we approached the first cable, Arnie took a small silver cylinder from his pocket and with his thumbnail gouged something free from its center. This he applied to the transducer on one side, forming it into a thin layer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Bee’s wax,” he replied. “It allows the pickup to stick to any surface without causing distortion. The sound passes right through it, no problem.”

We stopped at the first cable on the east side of the bridge, looking at each other and grinning, a bit wide-eyed with anticipation. I put on the headset and put the cassette recorder into record. Arnie attached the FRAP to the cable and Michael gave it a tentative whack with the mallet.

“Wow,” I said, “Do it again.”

Several whacks later we all listened back to the first sounds: strange and otherworldly. As we moved toward longer and longer cables we found one where, once hit, the standing wave moved freely up and down the cable in diminishing repetitions—an awesome sound whose resonance was a stunning thing to hear. And we were the very first to hear it, like acoustic explorers. By this time we were laughing and talking excitedly, putting the FRAP on other surfaces like the guardrails and the light stanchions, trading the headset back and forth and dancing about with glee at the different sounds we were hearing.

Suddenly, there were red and blue lights flashing as two Highway Patrol cars sped toward us from the Marin side, did a u-turn and came to a stop beside us, blocking two of the four north-bound lanes. The patrolmen jumped from their vehicles and walked toward us shouting, “What are you guys doing here?”

In retrospect we must have been a somewhat unsettling sight, three guys in heavy coats, cavorting on the bridge with boxes and wires.

I quickly rewound the tape to the awesome standing wave of that special cable and as the first officer approached and asked again what we were up to, I smiled, took off the headset, handed them to him and said, “Here, listen to this!”

He listened, a quizzical expression on his face. We pointed to the cable where the FRAP was still attached. I put it into record/pause and Michael hit the cable again. A broad grin broke out on the officer’s face. He removed the headset and said, “OK, you guys. I get it. But you’re going to have to go. You can’t be out here at this hour.”

We nodded and thanking the officers, turned and made our way back to the parking lot at Vista Point, almost skipping with glee at what we had in our possession.

You have to realize, it was 1975. The City was still full of hippies and it was not so unusual for people to be doing crazy things. These were pre-terrorist times. Whereas today we would have been detained, perhaps even arrested, in those days it was just another group of crazy guys doing weird things at odd hours.

But it didn’t stop there. We still had a bridge to explore.

Mike Phillips is a bit of a legend in these parts. He’s the kind of guy that finds himself at the crossroads of paradigm shifts and interesting moments in history. Not only was he the real-life protagonist of his college roommates’ novel “Goodbye Columbus,” but he also had the initial idea for MasterCard, created the Point Foundation to help Stuart Brand further his dreams after The Whole Earth Catalogue, and at the time of our adventure was the business manager of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Michael was a man who knew how to get things done.

Several weeks later, after writing a letter to the Golden Gate Bridge Authority, Michael had obtained permission for us to return to the bridge for 2 hours to finish our task of capturing the sounds of this world-class monument. We ostensibly leased the bridge for $13.50 an hour, the exact amount needed to pay for a guard to accompany us on our quest.

By this time our number had swelled from the original 3 to 20 people, all artists in our community who were delighted to be involved with this high tech high jinks. We walked on to the bridge with our bemused guard at 2 AM to discover what our erstwhile musical instrument really sounded like. In the next two hours we attached Arnie’s FRAP to every part of the bridge we could reach. The results were remarkable. The original sounds can be heard at the end of the 50th Anniversary Suite:

The most amazing sound was the massive suspension cable made up of thousands of individual cables bound together in a single strand that held up the roadway. The wind passing through the vertical cables, the rumble of cars crossing could be heard in the huge suspension cable and sounded like nothing any of us had ever heard. It had the depth and magnitude of deep space. Several years later a ‘sampler’ keyboard was finally developed by Emu Systems which allowed us to actually play the Golden Gate Bridge as a musical instrument.

In 1987 the GGB celebrated its 50th Anniversary and a group I formed in 1982, The San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble, consisting of myself and original members John Lewis, Paul de Benedictis, and new member Scott Singer, all synthesizer composers, created the 50th Anniversary Suite, a piece in four movements, using the sounds of the bridge as part of the instrumentation. Carl Nolte, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article on us, and the story went worldwide on the AP. Every major television network in the world picked it up and we found ourselves returning over and over again, prior to the celebration, to be videotaped ‘FRAPing’ the various structures of the bridge. On the day of the celebration, as over a half a million people walked on to the bridge, we performed the Suite at Fort Point, a civil war era fort at the southern base of the bridge. The Suite itself was available for sale at the Bridge Shop for several years after that.

Only in San Francisco.


  1. Ahh... the unbelievable memories this has stirred, remembering the Moog concerts from the early 70s. Great blog! Thanks for doing it, in spite of misgivings.
    "Gus" - Pete's old lady from back in them there days.

  2. Wow, where can I hear those recordings?

  3. Ah, those days! Always a freak show at 4am in the grocery at California & Hyde, floor burns from the Fillmore, etc.etc...(I got here in '68) Magical times with or without the Bus, eh? I think I was sitting with Janis Joplin the night you did that first experiment, or was it the night after.........I really can't remember! :~)