21 Jul 2011

Flame Organ

From Our Changing World, 9:46 pm on 21 July 2011

In the sleepy coastal town of Taeiri Mouth, Alastair Galbraith has built a very strange instrument.

Harnessing the power of thermo-acoustics, his Flame Organ uses Rijke tubes to produce sound.

To hear the organ's eerie music, and tease out some of the science behind it, Ruth Beran visits the musician at his home.

Fire organ crop
Alastair Galbraith and the fire organ (image: Alister Reid)

By heating metal gauze inside 44 open-ended glass tubes with individual Bunsen burners, each mechanically linked to an antique piano keyboard, Alistair Galbraith and a team of glassblowers, physicists, and engineers have created a fire organ.

The glass Rijke tubes of the fire organ make musical notes that at times sound like a trombone, at others like a conch shell, or even a strange type of singing, but only after the heat from the Bunsen burners is removed from the red hot gauze sitting inside each of the tubes.

Invented by Petrus Leonardus Rijke in 1859, the Rijke tube and it's cousin the Sondhauss tube (with one or both ends closed), translate heat-differential into sound waves, using thermoacoustics.

The fire organ was funded by Smash Palace, a collaboration between Creative New Zealand and the former Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, and the fragile instrument is based in the sleep town of Taeiri Mouth, an hour out of Dunedin.

Ruth Beran visits ‘sound artist’ Alastair Galbraith’s home to hear the fire organ’s eerie music and to discover how it led him on a journey into the world of science and physics.

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