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Creating music inside a century-old drawbridge

Paurl Walsh taps into the Fremont Bridge as artist-in-residence

Hallie Golden

Surrounded by a neon Rapunzel decoration and wall-to-wall windows, Paurl Walsh plays a series of chords on his electronic piano. Every few minutes, the Seattle composer pauses and snaps his fingers to the beat as he considers a passage in his classical electronic hybrid piece. But then, out of nowhere, a boat’s horn followed by a bridge alarm adds a contrapuntal edge to the music.

Walsh, 37, is very familiar with the interruption. It is one of the many side effects of being the Fremont Bridge’s artist-in-residence this summer.

Selected by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and musician and community representatives, Walsh has spent the last two months working on a composition in the drawbridge’s 13-by-8 northwest tower office. He devotes about 10 to 15 hours a week in its studio, often coming by in the evenings to work.

“It is a lot harder to write music in that environment, but it’s harder in a way that’s really interesting to me,” Walsh said. “I think it’s going to help make the piece unique.”

Hallie Golden

The studio sits on one of the most active bascule bridges in the world, opening an average of 35 times a day, according to SDOT. It has 360-degree views of the Fremont Cut, with Lake Union on one side and the ship canal heading towards Ballard on the other.

In the past, the $10,000 residency program, which is funded by SDOT and a Seattle art fund, has featured a writer and a multimedia visual artist. This is the first time it has gone to a composer.

Originally from northern California, Walsh moved to Seattle in 2002. For the last decade, he’s been writing a mix of classical music, modern electronic and experimental music for everything from modern dance performances to experimental multimedia performance art.

Walsh said the artist-in-residency opportunity is a really natural fit. Not only has the bridge been a key landmark in his everyday life for years (he lived and now works in a recording studio right by the bridge), but the idea behind the composition came from his own challenges in this neighborhood.

“The music I’m writing is about my very personal journey about addiction and substance abuse and depression and mental illness that I’ve struggled with over the last 10 years, and mostly physically in this area,” he said.

The turning point in this journey came after Walsh ended up in the hospital in 2012 with a severe case of pneumonia. He said the near-death experience set him on a very difficult, but ultimately life-changing journey towards becoming sober and more stable. He is working to showcase that journey through his music, and hopefully help other people going through similar challenges.

“I think music is uniquely positioned to do that,” Walsh said. “It’s a medium that is so directly tapped into our emotional centers as humans, more so than other mediums.”

Although still in its early stages, there will probably be two similar versions of the piece. The live version will be performed in November and likely feature five string players, a piano and a vocalist, and will be much more modern classical sounding. The studio-recording version will be released in December and could sound a little more modern and fleshed-out, with orchestral and electronic elements.

Walsh will also be doing some community outreach work in conjunction with the music. He and his colleagues are still finalizing their plans, but are looking to partner with local mental health and art therapy organizations.

“I’m trying to use this platform to talk about my experiences and hopefully maybe help a little bit to destigmatize that subject matter for other people and create or tie into already existing resources that are here for people who are suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues,” he said.