Dwight Frizzell was a teenager when he realized he could hear the Liberty Bend Bridge singing.
The bridge spans the Missouri River just north of Independence. It's part of Highway 291, which runs above Sugar Creek’s LaBenite Park.
“I heard the rhythm of the traffic — ka-kaw, kla-klock — but then I was also hearing resonances like singing, like harmonics, almost like voices singing in harmony,” says Frizzell, who’s been returning to the site for decades.
Now a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, Frizzell began recording the bridge with contact-microphones in 2016.
“It’s almost the same as just putting your ear right up to the bridge,” he says.
“I never thought about playing it as an instrument because it is an instrument,” he adds of the 1900-foot structure.
He used those recordings to create entire performance pieces, the bridge serving as a sort of soloist within an eclectic orchestra.
“We’re all sensitive to it. It is setting the lead and the structure of everything,” says Frizzell. “It is actually the composer. I’m listening or answering to it.”
Frizzell’s first step was an art gallery installation in 2016, combining audio recordings and video of the bridge and the river to create what he calls “a portrait of the bridge ... from the bridge’s point of view.”
He used mirror complexifiers (triangular tubes with mirrors folded on each other) to pan the image across the gallery wall.
“It divides the image into different triangular fragments that are shaped a lot like the triangular truss system of the bridge itself,” he says. “It’s an attempt to do visually what happens in sound.”
At a performance last year, he added singing bowls — bronze bowls traditionally used for meditation and healing. Steve Donofrio taught KCAI students how to play the bowls: a percussionist strikes the bowl with a wooden stick, or rolls the stick around the edge. The ringing, overlayed sound is oddly similar to the bridge tones.
Recently, the ensemble expanded for a performance at the 1900 Building. They added percussion played by members of Gamelan Genta Kasturi, zwoom (a long, flexible pipe played with a reed mouthpiece), performed by Thomas Aber, and lap steel guitar, played by Bill Dye.
Frizzell arranged speakers around the audience to broadcast the recordings of the bridge, with video projections at the front and sides.
“It’s a soundscape as if you are inside the bridge,” he says.
This idea follows a hundred year old tradition of sounds taken from the environment, both natural and man-made, and transforming those sounds into performance pieces.
This sort of experimental music emerged from the Industrial Revolution and gained prominence after World War II, when technological advances permitted more recording options.
The concept has been gaining ground since the 1960s with the advent of acoustic ecology, studying how the sounds in our environment affect us and vice versa.
Recently, composer Hildur Guðnadottir of Iceland won an Emmy for her score to the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” The soundtrack doesn’t use traditional instruments, though. Every sound was from a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania.
These types of pieces draw attention to the environment we live in and how we choose to interact with it.
“There’s a sense that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves,” says Frizzell.
While his “Bridge Music” is not specifically spiritual, it does convey a sense of transcendence. To many, a highway bridge is just metal and concrete, a tool for getting from point A to point B. But with each iteration of his musical program, Frizzell gets closer to a full realization of the bridge’s unique soundworld.
“For me it’s trying to respect it as a life form or its own kind of being,” he says, “and listen to it,” he says.
He really has turned a bridge into a musical instrument.