Aeolien Harps and Wave Organs

Ever since I interviewed the artist Bill Fontana for my recent post on renewable energy soundscapes, I have discovered a whole new world of sound artists whose acoustic installations create sublime music composed and played by the wind and waves.

I’ve spent more time than I’m willing to admit listening to these ethereal, otherworldly harmonic frequencies produced by the energy of the wind and the tides as they push air through a series of pipes and orifices hidden within or placed upon the exterior of these diverse sound sculptures.

There are so many to write about! For this post, I will concentrate on two.

My favorite is Croatia’s Sea Organ (Morske orgulje in Croatian), in the coastal town of Zadar. Click here to listen to its enchanting yet melancholy music, reminiscent of baleen whale vocalization and songs.


Designed by architect Nikola Bašić, the Zadar Sea Organ is a musical instrument concealed beneath a set of white marble steps that cascade down into the Adriatic. It consists of a resonating cavity and a series of 35 polyethylene flue pipes of different lengths, diameters and tilts grouped into seven successive sections. The seven groups of pipes are alternately tuned to two musically cognate chords of the diatonic major scale. As water enters the submerged pipes, it pushes air through the tuned pipes to create unpredictable sounds that vary according to the tides, the winds, and the agitation of the sea.

According to Architectural Daily, the Zadar Sea Organ is the largest aerophone in the world, spanning a total length of 70 meters (230 feet). Visitors don’t just come to take selfies and then leave; they tend to hang out and relax for hours on the marble steps, enjoying the never-ending concert performed by the ever-changing sea. The Sea Organ offers visitors a precious gift: a chance to slow down and pay attention to nature’s ebbs and flows, to meditate on the rhythmic crescendos and decrescendos of the rising seas in the context of climate change.

Next to his wave-activated sea organ, Bašić added a solar-powered installation called Monument to the Sun (Pozdrav suncu in Croatian). This 22-meter diameter circle in the ground is filled with 300 multi-layered glass plates that collect solar energy during the day in order to produce a trippy light show from sunset to sunrise. Together, the sea organ and the solar monument allow visitors to reflect upon nature’s abundant sources of renewable energy and the many different ways they can be used.

In the UK, Luke Jerram‘s Aeolus – a 10-ton stainless-steel Aeolian harp – was designed “to resonate and sing with the wind without any electrical power or amplification.” According to Jerram’s website, the aim of this giant aeolian harp is for the public to be able to visualize the silent shifting patterns of the wind by interpreting the sound around them.

This harp contains 310 internally polished stainless steel tubes, some of which have strings attached (see photo below). As the wind vibrates these strings, the varying harmonic vibrations are transferred through skins covering the tops of the tubes, and projected down through the tubes towards the viewer standing beneath the arch. For those tubes without strings attached, the tubes are tuned to an aeolian scale and hum at a series of low frequencies when it is not windy.

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The harp’s arch acts as an acoustic lens, focusing sounds made by the tubes to a central point where visitors stand. While I have not (yet!) stood under this magnificent harp myself, I can imagine how others would feel bathed in such extraordinary acoustics while gazing upward at the shifting sky through hollow tubes. I believe this kind of immersive experience could change the way many visitors visualize the wind and even the slightest movements of the air in which we live our entire lives. We need more hypnotic artworks like this that touch audiences at a primitive, subconscious level in order to shift our collective conversation about the promise of the energy transition.

After a nationwide tour, Aeolus was installed permanently at the Airbus Aerospace Park in Bristol.

The video below provides more technical information about how Aeolian harps work in general. I will write about other Aeolian harps and sea organs in future posts.

(Top image: Video still from Luke Jerram’s Aeolus project website.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Twitter and Instagram

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