Sonic tourism in San Francisco

I’m really intrigued by the idea of sonic tourism — going to places to experience the acoustic landscape there. There have been a few efforts to document sound destinations, including the wonderful Sound Tourism, but nothing that feels comprehensive.

There are at least a few kinds of sonic tourism spots, and some of the impressive ones weren’t conceived of as destinations at all. Teufelsberg in Berlin, for example, is a giant echo chamber. Common sounds take on an otherworldly quality as they bounce off the walls. I’d love to visit the world’s quietest anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs in Minnesota. And otherwise impressive sights, like the regular movements of enormous bat colonies in Austin, are really incredible for the sound they produce.

In San Francisco, though, there are a few places especially geared towards listeners. The Wave Organ, an acoustic sculpture by the Exploratorium on the bay, is one such location. It’s a beautiful little stone structure out on the jetty with a network of Seussian pipes running from under the waves up to various listening stations. The rumbles and gurgles of the incoming tides are amplified and distorted as they get routed up to the listeners. I made this recording during a visit:

Another spot in the Bay Area is the 92-foot-tall aeolian harp in South San Francisco. Aeolian harps are passive instruments played by the movement of the wind, and this one’s on a hill with a great view of the Bay. I haven’t yet been, but I’m looking forward to it. Is there another city in the world that has two major acoustic sculptures like these?

Add to that that San Francisco is the home of Audium, the world’s only “theater of sound-sculptured space,” and San Francisco seems like a global leader for sonic tourism. I’d be interested in finding more spots to visit, here and elsewhere.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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1 Comment

  1. You should put the Mapparium at the Christian Science Center in Boston on your list. It’s a big hollow stained-glass glass globe with a bridge going through it; its shape and size create weird acoustic effects. The website doesn’t tout them as a tourist attraction in themselves, but my clearest memory of visiting is being able to hear whispers from the far end of the bridge more clearly than I could hear the person next to me.

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