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High Tide at the Wave Organ

A Visit to One of San Francisco's Most Delightful Secrets

The Wave OrganAt the eastern edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, a tiny spit of land juts into the bay. If you walk out to the end, you can see San Francisco's skyline on one side and the Golden Gate Bridge on the other.

The view alone is worth a journey, but the little peninsula offers more than scenery. It's also the home of a San Francisco wonder, the Wave Organ.

The Wave Organ is a work of environmental art created by Peter Richards and George Gonzales in 1986. Peter is Artist-In-Residence at the Exploratorium, San Francisco's hands-on science museum. He agreed to meet us at the Wave Organ and introduce us to its mysteries.

"It's best at high tide," he said. "Unfortunately, high tide is at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday. You better bring caffeine."

We found some bagels on the way, and we met in the parking lot before dawn. David Kirby, who first told us about the Wave Organ, was there, too, and so were Henry Murray, Colin Donahue, and Kerry Runcie, a film crew from a British television show. We all squeezed inside the Phoenix, and Peter told us about his work over coffee.

"I do environmental sculpture," he said. "I'm sort of a cross between a landscape architect and a sculptor.

"Someone made a recording of the sounds made by water going in and out of a concrete dock in Sydney, Australia. I'd been wanting to add an audible component to my art, and that tape gave me the idea for the Wave Organ."

The sun broke the horizon, and a perfectly clear sky greeted us as we climbed out of the Phoenix and headed out to the end of the spit.

"When were the Phoenicians in San Francisco?" asked Henry suddenly. He was looking at a big granite column capital, and a cornice that looked like it fell off a Greek temple.

"The whole thing is constructed from stones that came from an old Gold Rush-era cemetery north of the city," explained Peter. "It was moved to make way for a housing development, and the stones were brought here."

Sticking up like periscopes among the carved granite blocks were over a dozen listening tubes. We tried them all, and then took turns in the 'stereo booth,' where the sounds from the pipes emanate from three sides.

Peter explained how he and George, with support from the Exploratorium and hundreds of volunteers, had made a model, excavated the site, and installed the PVC tubes to create the organ. The result is a masterpiece of physics, engineering and design.

And the sound? It's like listening to the world's largest sea shell. It's like distant drums, muffled cymbals, quiet thunder. The variety is endless, and the sounds of the pipes are punctuated by the cries of gulls and the barks of sea lions. The sounds of ships' horns drift across the bay, and little waves slap against the stones.

We sat and listened as the sun rose over the bay. The Wave Organ's music is a symphony of land and sea, complex, subtle, powerful, hypnotic.

Peter had brought trash bags with him, and when we left, he was sweeping the steps. "I always find litter here," he said, "To me it means that people come here and enjoy it. That's what it's for."

The Wave Organ is art at its best, well worth a journey anytime, even an hour before sunrise.


Getting there:
The Wave Organ is at the end of Yacht Road, past the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, California.
Click here for a MapPoint map.

It's open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the music never stops!
For more information, visit the Exploratorium online.

Peter Richards

Peter & Mark in the 'stereo' booth

David Kirby watches the sunrise to ocean music

Megan: "Like the world's largest sea shell"

Wave Organ listening stations

Pipes with a view

Peter Richards,
Artist, Scienist, Architect, Engineer, Custodian

9/19/08 Update: Here are two more wave organs, one in Zadar, Croatia and the other in Blackpool, UK.

7/27/03 Update: Robert & Lorna Hale from Gilbert, Arizona, recently visited the Wave Organ and report:

"We reached the end of the jetty about noon. Clear skies, wind and great views, but there was no sound from the pipes unless my ear was tightly coupled to the pipe, and then all I heard was the quietest gurgling, like plumbing at home."

Editor's Note: We suspect that the pipes have become clogged with sand, crabs, and other ocean-borne debris. We've also heard that graffiti and litter is sometimes a problem. The original creator no longer lives in San Francisco, and it's possible that no one is actively maintaining the Wave Organ. But even if the pipes are no longer producing the eerie music, the jetty affords unparalleled views of San Francisco Bay and a neat spot for an urban picnic.

9/14/03 Update: In late August, we received an e-mail message from C.M., a reader on the east coast who was planning a trip to San Francisco. After reading the 7-27 update, C.M. telephoned the Exploratorium and was told that the pipes had been "Roto-Rootered" and the Wave Organ's listening stations were working fine. C.M. and a friend visited the Wave Organ the next week and offered the following field report:

"…Yes, we did the Wave Organ last week, and definitely recommend it as an off-beat treat! The route there has been described elsewhere, I believe--just walk past the two marinas near the Palace of Fine Arts and onto a spit of land that projects into the SF Bay.

Along the way, you find the path lined with some sort of weed with yellow flowers that smells strongly like licorice--anise, perhaps-it has a really a delightful aroma!

The Wave Organ is out at the end of the land spit. We got there just before High Tide, as recommended. Audibly, we didn't know what to expect. Thought maybe it would be actual tones, but it wasn't. The noise, mostly gurgling sounds from pipes that go from the land into the water, was pretty neat. And, if you sit on a stone bench (much of the Wave Organ seems to have been assembled from pieces of masonry building facades--the garbage can holder is especially fascinating--giving the impression of seeing ancient ruins being exposed, rather like those sci-fi movies where you see the tip of the Statue of Liberty projecting out of the earth)--anyway, when you sit on the stone bench and have your head near the holes in its back, you can hear a sound almost like breathing, giving rise to thoughts of "the breath of Mother Earth" or similar. It was neat to share all this with a local person, who was curious as to what we were looking for. There are no signs, and this is definitely something that not everyone knows about! On the bad side, there were some pistachio shells scattered about, and just a bit of graffiti. Guess that's the flip side of having a place without guards and crowds. Might be nice, though, if a local scout troop or some other volunteers adopted the place and cleaned it up a bit. When I return to SF, we will definitely go back and check it out again!"

Editor's Note: Listening to a performance at the Wave Organ is an experience in subtlety, no startling crescendos of Bach-like "organ" music but nonetheless a magical experience not to be missed. There is another little-known musical treat awaiting visitors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The next time you are in that fair city, go to Point State Park and proceed to the SW corner (just beyond Ft. Pitt Museum) to a small, concrete amphitheatre located directly under the interchange of I-376 and I-279. The supports for the bridge include large wooden timbers that resonate with booming tones when vehicle traffic passes overhead. It is like listening to the largest marimba you could ever imagine. The range of sounds is remarkably diverse and is one of our all-time favorite places to eat lunch and enjoy free "musical" entertainment.

Update 11/23/03: Just thought I would add to the notes on the Wave Organ: I visited friends in San Francisco in September 2003. I found a listing for the Wave Organ in a Time Out guide, but could find no one in the city who had even heard of it! I forced a friend to drive us to past the yacht clubs, and walk to the end of the tiny inlet. The wave organ was definitely one of my favourite experiences in San Fran. It is not a trip for those expecting signs telling you it is the ideal picture-taking spot or souvenir is a beautiful, subtle experience. Not only is the view amazing, the sounds produced by the organ range from subtly soothing to downright rude! It is now a fave spot for my friends in San Fran, and I would recommend it to any slightly loner soul who can enjoy environmental art, or simply would like a quiet place to enjoy the sea.

Madeline Brown, London

The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ, November 29th, 2004
The Wave Organ: Listening Station
One of the Wave Organ's Listening stations

Update 12/12/04:

I had hoped to visit the Exploratorium the Monday after Thanksgiving, which didn't work out because it's closed on Mondays. Realizing that the Wave Organ was an easy walk from the Exploratorium's home in the Palace of Fine Arts, I headed out past the yacht clubs to check it out.

It was a beautifully clear, crisp day, and I wasn't the only person enjoying the weather and the view. My last visit to the Wave Organ was at dawn, and the tide was high. This time, it was late afternoon, and tide was extremely low. The "listening stations" don't function as well at low tide, but I found one that was performing perfectly.

I was happy to see no trash, no graffiti, and to learn that afternoon is a wonderful time to visit the Wave Organ. The views of Alcatraz Island and the city were spectacular as the sun went down.

Megan Edwards

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