May 6 2012, almost exactly 75 years after the Golden Gate Bridge first opened on May 27, 1937.
Alasdair Neale, conductor
San Rafael, CA
Over the past 15 years, Rob Kapilow has encapsulated elements of community, history, and place with his extraordinary Citypiece series, of which the Golden Gate Bridge piece, Chrysopylae (Kris•sop΄•i•lee), is the latest example. Engaging with residents, absorbing the essence of place, and immersing himself in the historical aspects of locale and object, Kapilow produces scores that he considers to be collaborations between himself and the community.
For his “Golden Gate Opus,” Kapilow traveled to the Bay Area for two extended stays, meeting with numerous groups of people to gather personal reflections on the bridge and brainstorm about its aural impact. These conversations continued through a Golden Gate Opus Facebook page, where followers contributed thoughts and kept up to date on the work’s progress. Kapilow also spent significant time at the bridge itself sampling ambient sounds, and at the San Francisco Library researching archives.
After many months of this preliminary legwork and extensive collaborations with sound artist Fred Newman (best known for his work on “A Prairie Home Companion”), Kapilow spent the next year writing the piece for chorus, orchestra, and electronics. The result is an epic choral and symphonic masterpiece that incorporates the broad spectrum of emotion and sound associated with this major American landmark.
This piece was the end result of an enormous amount of research in newspaper, radio, television and film archives, and historical special collections. Without the help of Paul Paparocz, my research assistant from Berkeley, sifting through this vast quantity of material would have been impossible. The local sounds painstakingly recorded by sound archivist Claudia Katayanagi were a key element in the overall sound design of the piece and an important point of departure. In addition, at the beginning of the project a wide spectrum of audiences throughout the Bay area graciously offered their thoughts about the piece-- youth orchestra members, families of suicide victims, workers on the bridge itself, senior citizens who were alive before the bridge was built, boat captains who regularly sailed under the bridge, the crew of the schooner the Alma, and war veterans whose first view of home was the bridge seen from a distance. Without the support of Alasdair Neale, Noralee Monestere and the Marin Symphony, and in particular, Kerry Weddington, the superb initial project coordinator, none of these exchanges would have been possible. The Banff Centre in Canada provided a wonderful weeklong collaborative residency for Fred and me which gave us an initial opportunity to outline the basic shape of the piece. Members of the Ohlone and Miwok tribes were enormously helpful in tracking down key native words and pronunciation, and Marie Currie’s willingness to provide access to the bridge community and the bridge itself was crucial. However, my biggest thanks of all go to my collaborator on the project, Fred Newman, whose contributions go far beyond simply creating the extraordinary real-world sounds of the piece. Our conversations about every aspect of the work—its overall shape, narrative, text, themes, and purpose—were essential in bringing the piece into existence. His energy, enthusiasm, persistence, and spirit of “yes over no” helped get this particular bridge built.
Movement I - CHRYSOPYLAE (Kris•sop΄•i•lee)
U.S. Army officer John C. Fremont gave the name “Golden Gate” to the entrance of San Francisco Bay in his “Geographical Memoir” submitted to the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1848. Fremont wrote that the three-mile strait that marked the entrance to the bay, was “called Chrysopylae (Golden Gate)” on his map, much like that of “the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople) was called Chrysoceras (Golden Horn).” The Greek word, Chrysopylae, literally means a golden gateway or passageway, and the idea of celebrating this extraordinary meeting of earth, water and sky - this natural, golden passageway - as well as the bridge itself, was the central idea behind the movement. It begins with a recorded voice of Joseph Strauss, Chief Engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge project, floating over an imaginary, nature-filled Garden of Eden that impressionistically suggests the pre-historic, pre-European contact period through use of the native Ohlone and Miwok words for earth, water, sky, salmon, abalone, live oak, tule grass, and redwood; the names of the principal Indian tribes of the area; and the sounds and music that might have been part of this world. The successive periods of contact are suggested as these same elements are translated into Spanish and then English.
Movement II - Belief: Suspended (Building)
“Belief: Suspended (Building)” refers to the bridge as a belief in possibility, suspended, as it were, over the waters of the bay. It evokes, in multiple ways, the period of the building of the bridge - over astonishingly strong protests and open disbelief in the era of The Great Depression. The movement begins with the sound of alarm bells, explosions, and pile drivers, reflecting what contemporary observers claimed was a staggering assault of violent noise that accompanied the bridge construction as it progressed from 1933-1937. Fragments of the period waltz, “There’s a Silver Moon on the Golden Gate,” the official song of the opening of the bridge, waft in and out like a radio signal. The twelve-tone row of the first section represents the 12 workers who fell through the safety net when scaffolding broke on February 17, 1937. The noisy, rivet-by-rivet rise of the towers and spinning of cables bring an optimism and a triumph of the “spirit of yes over no,” culminating in the exuberance of the opening-day celebrations on May 28, 1937. At the end of the movement, we simply gaze in awe at the remarkable and improbable new bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world – for the next quarter of a century.
Movement III – Here is where I Go
Acknowledging the history of suicides that have shadowed the bridge, this movement uses words directly drawn from suicide notes and the words of surviving family members, concluding with a blessing for the victims using the ancient Latin words from the Requiem Mass, “Requiem aeternam, dona eis domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis’ (Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.)
Movement IV – How Long
The Finale brings us back to earth through the sounds of modern life on the bridge with the choral words “Earth and water and sky,” the English words for the original Ohlone and Miwok used in the opening. The recurring refrain, “a passageway, a Golden passageway, Chrysopylae” is interspersed with text drawn wholly from the actual physical facts of the bridge itself. How long… is the Bridge? 4,200 feet… “How long …will your bridge survive?” asks an imagined recording of Michael O’ Shaughnessy, San Francisco’s Chief Engineer , of Joseph Strauss, Chief Engineer of the Bridge, in an exchange pulled, word-for-word, from newspaper archives.... Strauss answers, “Forever,” to which O’Shaughnessy replies, “How long is forever?”