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Audiograph's Sound of the Week: The Wave Organ

Maya de Paula Hanika

All week long we've been playing this sound, and asking you to guess what exactly it is and where exactly in the Bay Area we recorded it.

This auditory guessing game is part of our new project, Audiograph, a crowd-sourced collaborative radio project mapping the sonic signature of each of the Bay Area’s nine counties. By using the sounds of voices, nature, industry, and music, Audiograph tells the story of where you live, and the people who live there with you. Every Thursday, we reveal the origins of that week's sound on Crosscurrents, and here in weekly blog posts.

This week, KALW’sAshleyanneKrigbaum and Maya de Paula Hanika spoke with artist Peter Richards to get the answer.

Meet the man who made the wave organ

Peter Richards is an artist. The Wave Organ is his creation—a sculpture he built between Fort Mason and Crissy Field.

"We can see downtown San Francisco and we know how dense and frenetic that can be, but we're not there. But on the other hand we can hear that boat going by and that's a whole other world and we're not there either but we're a part of it," says Richards.

You won’t find it if you’re not looking for it. It feels like the middle of nowhere. You have to enter the Yacht Club parking lot, drive all the way to the end. Then, there’s a trail to walk, so plan on ditching your car.

"It really is this sort of edge between the built and the natural environment. Interesting things happen on the edge of anything," says Richards.

When you first see the Wave Organ, it looks like a prehistoric site, as if Stonehenge toppled over. But it’s not creepy. It’s almost soothing. A place that invites you to listen. There are benches built into the stones, surrounded by curved concrete pipes reaching up like tentacles, carrying the sound.

"It's almost like a Greek, mythical experience, you know, listening to the songs of the sirens coming through the strange looking orifices," Richard describes.

Those orifices are the tops of the concrete pipes. They’re how the Wave Organ amplifies the sounds of the bay. Richards was the director of art programs at the Exploratorium for 27 years, and is still an artist in residence. One day while he was explaining how sound works to someone at the museum, he had an idea he wanted to test out on the ocean.

"I brought a piece of PVC pipe out here and stuck it in the water, and sure enough, it was there. Just waiting for somebody to come along and grab it, so, and that's what I did," explains Richards.

What he "grabbed" through that PVC pipe was the voice of the ocean. Hearing it make him want to build a sound garden—a way to share the experience. But he couldn’t do it alone. So he found a stone mason, a man named George Gonzalez, to help him.

"He was in charge of the stone work and I was in charge of the plumbing, so to speak," says Richards.

Together they had to learn how to ‘play’ the sea, like a musical instrument.

"And as a matter of trial and error, putting in pipes and letting the tide come in and see what they sounded like, until finally we got one sounding good, we'd sort of freeze that shape and I would encase it in concrete and put it back in," says Richards.

The project took nine months. On its own, the ocean makes a sort of white noise… A mixture of hundreds of different frequencies. But the pipes of the Wave Organ let you hear those frequencies in a new way. Basically, when a wave hits the pipe, "it activates the fundamental frequency of the pipe," says Richards.

To understand what a fundamental frequency is, Peter told us to think of a wine bottle: "If you just hit the end of the wine bottle, it will make a thumping sound right? It will have a certain note or frequency. And if you fill the wine bottle up by half, you know the frequency will go up. So it's the same thing. Each pipe is an air column, or an air chamber and when the wave hits into the pipe it creates a vibration that makes that air column resonate at a certain frequency or sound, note."

To hear the sound, you have to get really close to the pipes, basically stick your ear inside. And as the water fills the pipe, there’s less air, and that makes the pitch get higher. 

"It’s quite melodic, it’s beautiful," says Richards. "An underlying concept for the whole piece is that this energy is a result of the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. Which determines the seasons and the weather and it is also the relationship between the Earth and the moon, which affects the tides. Those sort of synchronous relationships determine what you're going to hear at any given time."

High tide is an awesome time to come because the more water in the pipes, the louder the sound. People find connection there. The Wave Organ has been the backdrop for weddings, picnics, and first dates.

"I have this underlying philosophy that if people feel more connected to their surroundings, they'll feel more responsible for it. People come out here and they feel comfortable enough where they do things, and it becomes a part of their life and their bank of stories that they relate. I think as an artist, if I can do that, then I've succeeded in a way," says Richards.

Some people might think that they’re coming out to this remote place to escape from the world. But coming here isn’t an escape—it’s just hearing the world in a different way. 

Congratulations to this week's winner, Ellen Sinaiko. We'll have a new sound for you to guess and another chance to win in two weeks. 

In the meantime, is there a sound from your life that should be featured on Audiograph? Call at 415-264-7106 and tell us about the sound of where you live.

Check out our FacebookTwitter and Soundcloud pages to hear more from Audiograph.