‘Largest wind instrument’: LA musician records duet with Golden Gate’s eerie hum
For more than a year, the Golden Gate Bridge has been making an ethereal humming sound on windy days that has aggravated neighbors, charmed fans and sparked countless jokes.
Now the strange noise, which has been described as akin to both a wheezing kazoo and a ghostly chant, has inspired its own album.
This week Los Angeles guitarist and songwriter Nate Mercereau released a series of duets that utilize the bridge’s din as a backing track. Mercereau, a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, teamed up with Bay Area sound engineer Zach Parkes to record four tracks, layering the sounds the bridge makes in high winds with haunting melodies from Mercereau’s guitar synthesizer.
The project, titled Duets | Golden Gate, also included a video of him improvising the instrumental tracks with wind at his face and the bridge humming in the background.
Engineers have determined the bridge’s song comes from the wind hitting a newly installed set of railing slats on the span’s western side.
Mercereau said he was inspired after reading about the bridge hum in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I saw a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the Golden Gate Bridge ‘humming is driving people crazy’, and ‘a team of engineers are working to shut it up’,” said Mercereau. But when he heard a recording of the musical tones coming from the bridge, he said “I knew there was potential to reframe these sounds as something unique and beautiful.”
The Golden Gate Bridge district spokesperson, Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, told the Guardian that the sound started last summer when the district installed new slats in the bridge’s railings, designed to make the structure more aerodynamic in high winds. But neighbors on the western side of San Francisco have complained that the constant noise on windy days reminds them of the kind of sound jailers use “to torture prisoners”, so the district is working on a retrofit to eliminate the hum.
Mercereau, a former San Francisco resident, who has played guitar and worked on recordings with such artists as Jay-Z, Sheila E, Leon Bridges, and John Legend, said he saw the bridge as “the largest wind instrument in the world”.
“I feel the pain of SF residents who are constantly subjected to this drone,” he said. But “there is nothing quite like hearing something so vastly large make that much sound powered by nature. The tones smear and crescendo as the wind picks up, and it gets so loud that at some points you can feel your own body vibrate with it.”
For a while, however, it seemed like the bridge might refuse to participate in the recording of its own debut album.
After reading about the hum, Mercereau decided to drive up from LA to northern California on what was predicted to be a particularly windy weekend in May. Then he and Parkes spent a night driving around in the dark trying to find a place where they could hear and record the sound.
There is nothing quite like hearing something so vastly large make that much sound powered by nature
But it wasn’t so easy to find. They went to a marina that sits right under the bridge and could only faintly hear the sound. The next day, they roamed the cliffs on the western side of the bridge in the Marin Headlands and managed to detect a louder hum, but the wind was so fierce it muffled their recordings.
“When the wind is really howling, that really ups the difficulty level of recording it,” he said. “So we were kind of putting these field recorders under our shirts with headphones on, trying to listen and trying to block the wind, and find the best spots.”
After a few hours of scrambling around on hillsides with their sound monitors tucked under their jackets, they finally found a cove that partially blocked the wind, but also allowed them to capture the hum. Then they had to hoist all their equipment down the hillside along with a car battery to power it, but they finally got the sound they wanted.
“Even driving up, I knew there was a chance that this might not work,” said Mercereau. “All we had to go on was this weather report that said there was going to be wind.”
Mercereau said the team left the recordings mostly raw, so the songs – titled simply Duet 1-4 – include some of the ambient sounds of life around the bridge: birds, airplanes and passersby.
He said he was a little sad to know that his duet partner may soon go silent. Bridge spokesman Cosulich-Schwartz said the bridge district expects to announce its plans to quieten the bridge in the next month or two.
“Since this sound won’t happen forever, it felt appropriate to acknowledge that it’s also unique and very special,” Mercereau said. “I won’t have an issue if it stops. But I also will miss it.”