Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: S.F.'s Wave Organ is music to the soul

04/01/2012 12:00 AM

04/01/2012 11:56 AM

SAN FRANCISCO – This city, so justifiably smitten with its historic landmarks and tourist haunts, likes to go for the grand gesture, the bold statement, the self-consciously arty design that trumpets, "Woo-hoo, look at us."

And true, as with any object of beauty, you cannot help but gawk in admiration. From the sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge to the cloud-piercing jut of the Coit Tower, from curvaceous Lombard Street to the asymmetical perforated copper facade of the de Young Museum, San Francisco is a visual splendor.

Today, however, I would like to point to a lesser-known San Francisco landmark, one that has only recently gained recognition in tourist guidebooks after languishing for decades in relative fog-shrouded obscurity. This edifice is subtle and stealthy – indeed, most of it is submerged – yet no less grand in its own way, no less a sensory delight, and no doubt a must-stop both for stressed-out city folk and overstimulated tourists seeking a respite.

The objet d'art is the Wave Organ, and the problem is finding it. Actually, that's not a problem; that's part of the whole Wave Organ's experience. This art installation-cum-public space is meant to be a contemplative refuge. So, naturally, they aren't going to erect a neon arrow pointing the way or, even, a sign.

It sits on a spit of land at the very tip of the Marina District, with the Golden Gate Bridge to the left and Alcatraz to the right. Just drive as far out in the Marina District as you can go, until Yacht Drive dead-ends, then park and just start walking down the windswept promontory until you run out of land and see a jagged heap of discarded granite tombstones from a Victorian cemetery intermingled with jagged jetty rocks and contorted PVC pipe.

Yup, you've found it.

Designed in the mid-1980s by Peter Richards, artist in residence at the nearby Exploratorium, and constructed by stone-mason artist George Gonzales, the Wave Organ is precisely what its name implies.

"It's exposed to dynamic waters and it's neither land nor water, but something in between," Richard says. "It's this tiny sliver of solid ground that puts you out and away from the normal hubbub of life, which is why it's so peaceful. You can shed the daily grind and attach yourself to other things, and pay attention to other things.

"We wanted it to blend in. We wanted people to feel like they'd discovered it on their own, make them think it was theirs."

Sit atop the granite slabs, or nestle into the coveted quadraphonic alcove, tilt your head toward one of the 25 exposed, periscopelike tubes that snake into the lapping water below, and listen. I mean it: Put away all electronic devices, exhale and just listen.






It is, undeniably, a percussive force, changing in pitch and tempo according to the dictates of that celebrated conductor, Mother Nature.

It is best, Richards says, to go at high tide and full moon, when tidal forces are at their most creative.

What you'll make of the aural arrangement will speak volumes about your sensibilities.

You'll either:

Be dismissive and compare the "noise" coming out of the tubes as the sound your stomach makes after eating some sketchy seafood at Fisherman's Wharf, or perhaps the gurgle of bad bathroom plumbing.


Be transported and experience it as something akin to a John Cage aleatoric symphony, the waves themselves responsible for the composition and texture, the dissonant notes it emits part of a greater body of work.


I interpreted it both ways. Let's be honest: Some of the sound does strike you as more epiglottal than elegiac.

But the longer you stay, the more your mind lets go of the literal, and you gain an appreciation of nature's artistry. You forget this is merely the reverberation from waves sloshing in and out of PVC piping and start imagining underwater tympanies and xylophones jamming with a concussive djembe in some aquatic drum circle.

A mix of pulsing sensations and repetition would make Philip Glass nod in appreciation.

And, in fact, Richards says musicians have used the wave organ for accompaniment. Then again, others have used the Wave Organ as a cozy corner for picnics, a tucked-away late-night makeout spot, a place to contemplate life's existential questions.

"Weddings have happened there," Richards says. "Any way that people behave, they behave out there. It's a true public place – a source of inspiration, celebration and meditation."

At high tide one recent morning, I felt a noticeable slowing of my blood pressure. The Wave Organ: nature's Inderal.

I stood, ear-height to a tall tube, and for a good 45 minutes listened to the symphony as the morning sun rapidly turned to fog, enveloping the Golden Gate and Alcatraz until all I had left was the sound.

It was, truly, golden.

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

Join the Discussion

The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service