As It Happens

This musician recorded a series of 'duets' with the Golden Gate Bridge

Where others heard only a grating nuisance, Nate Mercereau found beauty. The L.A. musician has recorded a series of what he calls "duets" with San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, incorporating the sound of its notorious hum. 

Nate Mercereau incorporated the San Francisco bridge's notorious hum into his music

Nate Mercereau poses outside with his guitar, the Golden Gate Bridge visible in the background. The L.A. guitarist and songwriter has released a series of songs using the bridge's notorious hum as a backing track. (Minea Bisset/Force Field PR)

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Where others heard a grating nuisance, Nate Mercereau found beauty.

The L.A. musician has recorded a series of "duets" with San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, incorporating the sound of its notorious hum

"It was new. It was immersive," Mercereau told As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. "It was a lot like playing with nature, because the wind is what was really playing the bridge."

The project, a collaboration with Bay Area sound engineer Zach Parkes, is called Duets | Golden Gate, and includes four songs that use recordings of the hum. There's also videos of Mercereau performing live with the bridge, improvising along with the hum on a guitar synthesizer.

Mercereau says he was inspired to make Duets after he read an article about how engineers are working to silence the humming noise that has been irritating residents since last summer, when the west sidewalk of the 84-year-old bridge was retrofitted with new railings to make it safer in high winds.

Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the bridge, told As It Happens in May that the hum is caused by wind passing through the new railing slats.

"I was very surprised that I didn't know about it," Mercereau said. "And then I was even more surprised that I actually really like the sound that it was making. I considered it, you know, more on the beautiful side of things."

That's not an opinion shared by those who live near the bridge and hear the humming at all hours. Residents have described the sound as "creepy," "unbearable," "nasty and irritating." One local radio station proclaimed the hum has transformed the bridge into "a giant orange wheezing kazoo."

"In that negative press is where I saw the opportunity, because it was really universally viewed upon as something that was a negative sound," Mercereau said.

"I completely understand having to deal with that every day as a resident would be very difficult, very challenging, but as a specific moment in time where the bridge is making the sound and effectively singing, it felt like it was appropriate to just capture this … like a sound artifact."

Mercereau wasn't sure at first if it would be possible to realize his vision of duetting with the bridge. He and Parkes had to do a lot of trial and error to find the right location and equipment to capture the sound without letting the howling winds overwhelm the audio.

They ultimately settled on the site of an old military bunker on a cove in the Marin Headlands, where the entire bridge was visible in the backdrop.

"It was set up just so the wind was present enough that, you know, you could still hear it in the recording sometimes, but it was greatly diminished compared to what it is on a mountaintop," Mercereau said.

Like the hum itself, the songs are somehow both eerie and soothing.

"I think that speaks to the history of the bridge. There's everything from, you know, tragedy, to it also being just a world renowned, loved monument. And that all comes through in the sound that it makes — to me at least," said Mercereau, who used to live in San Francisco. 

"It has that haunting quality. It also has a beauty to it. So it has the full range of experience, represented in sound."

Love it or hate it, the hum won't be around forever. The city has enlisted the help of Ontario-based engineering firm RWDI to modify the railing and get rid of the sound once and for all. 

"I will be sad when the bridge doesn't make sound anymore," Mercereau said, "but I'm also very glad that this artifact exists."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Nate Mercereau produced by Kate Swoger.

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