April 2011

Gone with the Wind: Thoughts on the Aeolian Organ

Gone with the Wind: Thoughts on the Aeolian Organ

By Jesse Stewart

In the Fall of 2010, I was honoured to have been asked by Susie Osler to contribute a piece to fieldwork, a beautiful outdoor art exhibition space near Perth, Ontario. I decided that I wanted to create a work that would draw on my dual background in the visual and sonic arts, so I created an Aeolian Organ consisting of tuned pipes ranging in length from roughly twelve to eighteen feet. These pipes are mounted vertically and are distributed across the field in such a way as to create a waveform across the horizon. Made out of 4-inch diameter black ABS pipe, the pipes elicit different tones as wind blows across vertical openings near the top of each tube. These openings are oriented in different directions such that shifts in wind direction activate different harmonics of different pipes, resulting in an ever-changing series of harmonies. The distal openings near head height on each pipe serve as listening holes for visitors to the site.

The pipes are tuned to a natural minor scale or "aeolian mode," named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. Although the pipes sound mainly on windy days, one can hear reflections of ambient sonic environment in each tube at all times in much the same way that children “hear the ocean” inside empty seashells. The length of each resonating pipe sculpts the ambient sound, reinforcing different portions of the harmonic spectrum. The piece thus draws attention to both the landscape and the soundscape in all kinds of weather, encouraging those who engage with the work to think about the relationships between themselves, the landscape, and the sonic environment.

On April 28, 2011—two days before I was slated to uninstall the work—severe winds swept through Southern Ontario, downing trees and injuring dozens of people. The winds—which topped speeds of 120 km per hour at times—knocked down several wind organ pipes, bending the ¾ inch galvanized steel rods supporting them in 90 degrees. I would have liked to have heard what that sounded like! I take this occurrence as a lesson in impermanence and a reminder of the extraordinary power of nature. In many ways, this is what the piece was about in the first place.

 My sincere thanks go to Susie Osler and the entire fieldwork collective for the opportunity to show this piece at their beautiful site.

Jesse Stewart April 30, 2011