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The Golden Gate Bridge Hum

A high-wind phenomena creates a new San Francisco soundmark.

This 30-second video, filmed through my open back door around 6pm California time today, Saturday, June 6, gives a sense of the hum whose emanation from the Golden Gate Bridge has gained notoriety this weekend. There’s quite a bit of wind and rustling to be heard, and amid that is a clear, guttural drone, as if a bullfrog had taken up Tuvan throat singing. This is not the way this part of the world usually sounds.

I first got word of the hum Friday evening, June 5, shortly after 8pm, when Barry Threw, executive director of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, DM’d me a tweet from Aki Rodić, a local computer graphics specialist. Rodić’s tweet read “New railings on the Golden Gate Bridge are producing deafening eeirie sound that can be heard for miles,” accompanied by an emoji for the bridge and linking to a video, the sole video, on a YouTube account attributed to Roaming Records. The video is titled “Deafening Sound Over Golden Gate Bridge.” Recorded at 2:34pm earlier that same day, it plays for 59 seconds, showing the view through the front window of a car as it crosses the bridge. A haunting sound is prominent, a ghostly choral effect, like the world’s largest glass harmonica had been brought in to score a film titled Escape from San Francisco.

This evening, reports of the strange phenomenon outrank the demonstration that blocked traffic on the bridge this afternoon. A report by CNN’s Alisha Ebrahimji quoted a spokesperson for the bridge, “We knew going into the handrail replacement that the Bridge would sing during exceptionally high winds from the west, as we saw yesterday.” A KQED report notes, as well, it was understood in advance that the design change “would begin to hum” in high winds.

The Golden Gate Bridge Hum should not be confused with “the Hum,” a “low-frequency buzz” that numerous people around the world complain about, and that has led to numerous theories as to its origin. Nor is a fully intentional music composition, like the “singing road” on a stretch of Route 66 in New Mexico that plays “America the Beautiful,” produced by National Geographic:

San Francisco has its share of soundmarks, to use Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer’s term for the sonic equivalent of landmarks. One of them, the weekly Tuesday noon test of the outdoor public warning system, went silent this past December, at the start of a two-year rehabilitation project. Perhaps by the end of 2021, we’ll hear it in a duet with the bridge.

For geographic reference, I live in the Richmond District of San Francisco, just north of Golden Gate Park and roughly three miles from the center of the Golden Gate Bridge. We’ll see, in the coming weeks, as the wind slows, whether this is an isolated event, or if the high winds have awoken our ears to a sound that we’ll now notice more regularly.

Video originally posted to youtube.com/disquiet.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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