By Ricky O’Bannon
When once asked about the connection between nature and music in his work, composer John Luther Adams replied that “no matter how clever we think we are, we human animals are an inseparable part of the natural world. Nature is the original source of human music and all human thought.”
Whether you view it on the same spiritual level as Adams or not, there is something compelling about the idea that music-making is tied to the natural world — that the patterns and forces we encounter in nature might have something inherently musical about them, which we in turn reflect.
Earlier this month, a video of an incredible music installation in Croatia pinged its way across the web and social media. The instrument was man-made, but the performer is the ocean.
In 2005, the Sea Organ was constructed by architect Nikola Basic along the shores of Zadar, Croatia. The organ from the outside looks like a set of stairs, but it has holes to take in air for concealed pipes below. Underneath those steps, 35 musical pipes are held, and the incoming wave pushes the stored air through those pipes. The resulting tones are dependent on the size and energy of the wave.
With the Croatian Sea Organ as inspiration, below are several examples of nature’s more musical side.
1. The Wave and Tide Organs
With as many composers who have written about the sea, it might not be surprising that the Croatian organ was not the first project to turn the ocean into music in a more literal way. In the early 1980s, artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez were inspired by recordings made by Bill Fontana of sounds coming from a vent pipe at an Australian concrete dock. Over several years, Richards and Gonzalez worked to design and build the Wave Organ located at the Exploratorium in the San Francisco Bay. The organ was completed in 1986 and features 25 pipes made out of PVC and concrete set at various locations and heights. The rise and fall of the tide impacts the pipes, generating eerie sounds that might not appear musical at first listen but develop their own logic over time.
In the English seaside county of Lancashire, the Blackpool High Tide Organ was constructed by artists John Gooding and Liam Curtin in 2002. The 49-foot-tall sculpture houses 18 pipes, pitched in B-flat, which connect to the sea wall. Curtin describes the music generated as more ambient than tuneful, and he told Wired that “Its effect will be not unlike the work of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich or John Adams, or in a way like the repeated patterns in contemporary music.”
2. The Tree Ring Player
Scientists have long used the rings in the cross section of a tree as a sort of living history to tell the tree's age and understand the weather and climate of the years during which each ring was grown. Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck wanted to take the idea of information locked away in tree rings further with his project “Years.” Traubeck designed a record player that could analyze the texture and color of a tree ring disk as it spins like an oversized LP. That data is then translated through a computer program called Ableton Live, which uses that input to generate an otherworldly piano track.
3. The Singing Ringing Tree
Completed in 2006, the Singing Ringing Tree is a musical sculpture overlooking the English town of Burnley. Designed by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, the almost 10-foot-tall stack of pipes is wind powered, and it whistles and “sings” a new song based on the direction and speed of the wind.
Artist Luke Jerram built a similar wind-powered installation called "Aeolus." The name of Jerram’s project pays homage to the Greek god of winds and an entire genre of wind-powered instruments that date back to the ancient world. The Aeolean harp (as it was first called in the late 1600s) is essentially an acoustic box with a set of tuned strings running across it, which would be placed outside or at a window where a breeze was expected. The strings resonate in response to the wind, generating an ethereal sound that is rich with overtones and musical shapes that fade in and out far differently than strings plucked or bowed by human hands. The haunting sounds inspired composer Henry Cowell in his 1923 work.
4. Stalacpipe Organ
The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia’s Luray Caverns holds the distinction of being the world’s largest instrument. The “organ” is actually a lithophone, which is an instrument that uses rock or stone to generate tones. Constructed between 1954 and 1957, the organ replaces pipes with stalactites that were selected because they resonate with a specific note when struck. The organ console is wired to rubber mallets all over the cave, which strike the corresponding stalactite whenever a key is pushed.