Located on a jetty in the San Francisco Bay, the Wave Organ was built in 1986. In collaboration with the Exploratorium, artist Peter Richards built an acoustic sculpture that amplifies the sounds of the waves from the bay.
The jetty on which the Organ is built was constructed with carved granite and marble taken from a demolished cemetery. The Organ itself is comprised of PVC and concrete organ pipes at various elevations. The sound is created by waves crashing against the ends of these pipes, and the sound generally consists of low, subtle tones.
The Wave Organ includes more than twenty pipes that extend down into the water of the Bay. When the waves roll in, the pipes resound with liquid music — low gurgling notes that ebb and flow with the restless movement of the ocean and the changing of the tides.
What makes the music? It is similar to the phenomena of the sound heard in a conch shell – a specific volume of air resonating at a specific frequency. The same sort of thing happens in the pipes of the Wave Organ, but there is one important difference. In the Wave Organ, the columns of air within the pipes constantly change as the water moves in and out. As the length and volume of the air column in each pipe changes, the pitch of the sound it produces also varies — the larger the volume of air, the lower the sound — the smaller the volume of air, the higher the sound. The organ is active acoustically during higher tides.
The park-like setting on the leeside of the breakwater has a view of San Francisco’s Marina District, of downtown San Francisco’s skyline, the East Bay hills, Sausalito, Mt. Tamalpais, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. The jetty itself and the Wave Organ were constructed with material taken from a demolished cemetery, providing a wonderful assortment of carved granite and marble. Magnificent old and finely worked pieces form the irregular terraced seating from which the public enjoys the waves and the sounds of the pipes.
The Wave Organ was a collaboration between Exploratorium artist Peter Richards and George Gonzales, an artist and stone-mason, who was responsible for the creation of the environment and for the recent restoration. The Wave Organ is dedicated to Frank Oppenheimer (1912-1986), the Exploratorium’s founder.