Imagine the tall pipes of a church organ. Imagine each pipe is made of glass. Imagine those pipes are not connected to a keyboard but freestanding, attached to slim white metal frames, originally intended for film or theatre lighting rigs. Imagine each of those glass tubes has a small propane torch attached at the bottom, aiming a blue flame upwards into the hollow centre of the tube. Imagine the sound it makes. Can you picture it? Can you hear it? Can you feel it?
The Gas Organ is what happens when a handful of common plumbing, lighting and science lab equipment are brought together by a team of musicians and artists with a shared curiosity for engineering and physics. Lou Smith, artistic director of the Gas Organ project, describes how it works:
The Gas Organ is a type of Pyrophone, from the Greek words for 'fire' and 'sound'
Sound is generated in an open-ended tube when the heat from a propane flame causes the air to heat up and vibrate, which sets up resonance in the tube. The pitch of the sound is determined by the length of the tube, with longer tubes producing lower frequency of vibration. Chaotic turbulence produced in the flame by air currents, and sound pressure waves add vibrato and beats to the already complex mix.
The propane torch used to provide the heat for the Organ is controlled by servos (small motors) which adjust the volume of gas in the flame, and also the ratio of the Gas/Air mix. The servos are in turn controlled by a random signal generator, which uses analogue microprocessors. Control can also be input using Radio Control transmitters, allowing the Gas Organ to be 'played'
Previewing at Shunt Vaults last week, the deep mournful sound, like ghostly whalesong or a dirge played on a didgeridoo, made the famously long, dark walk to the Shunt Vaults bar even more sinister and emotive than usual. The chance to operate / play the organ, manipulating the flames to change the sound via a model aeroplane remote control was... sublime. It was particularly pleasing to be introduced to the individual pipes, each one a different length and each one a different character - one was temperamental with a tendency to shriek, another was gentle and quiet but insistent.
The Sassoon Gallery in Peckham will host the Gas Organ on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week. As well as the chance to play on it yourself, there will be a 'recital' on the organ each evening by guest performers: a blind piano tuner, a sculptor and painter are all on the programme. See it, hear it and feel it to believe it.
The Gas Organ, Monday 16 to Wednesday 17 July at the Sassoon Gallery, Peckham. For more information, go to the Gas Organ website here.