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The Wave Organ

The Wave Organ

Peter Richards and George Gonzalez
Exploratorium artists in residence, 1986

The Wave Organ is a wave-activated acoustic sculpture located on a jetty in the San Francisco Bay. The concept was developed by Peter Richards and was installed in collaboration with sculptor and master stone mason George Gonzales. Inspiration for the piece came from artist Bill Fontana’s recordings made of sounds emanating from a vent pipe of a floating concrete dock in Sydney, Australia.

In 1980, Richards (a Senior Artist at the Exploratorium for many years) received a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that enabled him to conduct an extensive period of investigation into the physicality of the Wave Organ phenomenon.

A prototype, built at the same location, was presented as part of the New Music ’81 Festival. Though very rudimentary in nature, it generated enthusiasm and support for a permanent work. Permit acquisition and fundraising efforts by Frank Oppenheimer, Founding Director of the Exploratorium, began soon after, but actual construction did not start until September 1985, seven months after Oppenheimer’s death. The Wave Organ was completed in May 1986 and was dedicated in June to the memory of Frank Oppenheimer.

The Wave Organ is located on a jetty that forms the small Boat Harbor in the Marina district of San Francisco, walking distance from the Exploratorium. The jetty itself was constructed with material taken from a demolished cemetery, providing a wonderful assortment of carved granite and marble, which was used in the construction of this piece. The installation includes 25 organ pipes made of PVC and concrete located at various elevations within the site, allowing for the rise and fall of the tides. Sound is created by the impact of waves against the pipe ends and the subsequent movement of the water in and out of the pipes. The sound heard at the site is subtle, requiring visitors to become sensitized to its music, and at the same time to the music of the environment. The Wave Organ sounds best at high tide. Check the tides.

RoadTripAmerica visits the Wave Organ

Audio Slideshow

Peter Richards shares his inspiration for creating this piece and explores its function as a theater in which many different kinds of human experiences unfold.

Watch Audio Slideshow.