"Chai," a new musical sculpture by Richard Deutsch, towers over the courtyard at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
"Chai," a new musical sculpture by Richard Deutsch, towers over the courtyard at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto JCC unveils ‘mind-blowing’ musical sculpture by Richard Deutsch

As visitors return to the reopened Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, they will be greeted by a new four-story art installation by renowned local sculptor Richard Deutsch. But this being Silicon Valley, the sculpture is not just a piece of art; it is also a high-tech musical instrument that anyone with a smartphone can play.

Installed on an elevator tower in the center of the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, the sculpture titled “Chai” has 18 stainless-steel pipes, 10 of which have transducers inside that amplify sound through vibration. New York-based sound artist Ron Shalom created software that allows the public to play musical tones through the pipes. Accessed by scanning a QR code, it also gives musicians the ability to write their own compositions specifically for the one-of-a-kind instrument.

“This is going to be a perfect thing for people to come back to and have their minds blown,” said Zack Bodner, the JCC’s CEO. “It plays music and it plays voices. It’s something revolutionary that’s never been done.”

Bodner said he liked how the sculpture resembles different things to different people, including angel’s wings, a dove, and even the parting of the Red Sea. (To this reporter, it looks like an organ Antoni Gaudí, the wildly inventive Catalan architect, might have designed.)

The “Chai” sculpture cost $265,000 to create and install, with a major contribution coming from Taube Philanthropies. Bodner noted that the funds were committed before the start of the pandemic, which forced the JCC, like others in the Bay Area and across the country, to make budget cuts and furlough employees.

Tad Taube was among about 50 people who were present at the unveiling of the 3,400-pound sculpture during the JCC’s annual meeting on June 10. The 90-year-old philanthropist told J. that he had long hoped to liven up the plaza with a piece of art, and Deutsch’s sculpture far exceeded his expectations. “It just takes my breath away,” he said. “It’s incredibly beautiful in terms of its execution. It has an element to it that I’ve never seen in a work of art — it talks.”

The sculpture was supposed to be installed last fall, but the August 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire partially destroyed Deutsch’s studio in Davenport, near Santa Cruz, and covered many of the pipes in black soot. Repairing the pipes involved sandblasting and repolishing them, a “thankless” process that took several months, Deutsch said.

It has an element to it that I’ve never seen in a work of art — it talks.

Deutsch’s stone and metal sculptures can be found around the Bay Area, including at Stanford, the Oakland Museum of California, and S.F.’s Mission Bay. For the JCC piece, he collaborated with his artist daughters Silvie and Rebecca. The process began two years ago when the team held workshops to get to know the various people who regularly use the JCC’s campus, including preschoolers and residents of the Moldaw retirement community.

“We wanted to create something that would be equally interesting to a 4-year-old and a 94-year-old,” said Rebecca Deutsch, a 30-year-old artist and elementary school teacher who lives in Oakland. “What better than an instrument that makes sound and stops you in your tracks.”

Richard Deutsch said he was inspired by the experience of walking into a plaza in Italy and hearing church bells ringing. “It interrupts your day in a way that nothing else could, and I felt like that’s what this plaza needs,” he said.

The two sections of the sculpture mirror each other and represent what he called the “two-ness of Jewness,” exemplified by the separation of light and dark and the heavens and earth in Genesis, as well as the stone tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

(From left) Ron Shalom, Rebecca Deutsch, Tad Taube, Richard Deutsch and Shana Penn at the unveiling of "Chai." (Photo/Saul Bromberger)
(From left) Ron Shalom, Rebecca Deutsch, Tad Taube, Richard Deutsch and Shana Penn at the unveiling of “Chai.” (Photo/Saul Bromberger)

One of the artistic team’s goals is to incorporate the sculpture into the lives of community members through interactive programs. For example, Rebecca Deutsch said one idea is to ask people to record themselves responding to a “question of the week,” and then programming their voices to “flood out of the sculpture” at specific times. Another idea is to invite musicians around the world to come to Palo Alto and perform original compositions on the instrument.

“My dad and I’ve been talking about this as the heart of the campus, and now it’s like the heart gets to start beating,” she said. “I’m really excited to see how it comes to life, and how we can use it as a tool to bring people together.”

Jack Adler, an 86-year-old Moldaw resident, said he watched with excitement as the sculpture was installed in phases beginning in April 2020. “The tower was just this yellow cement thing, and now look at the difference,” Adler said. “I think it’s just fabulous.”

Adler said he was especially impressed by the design of the more than 5,000 ceramic tiles enveloping the tower, which Rebecca Deutsch said was inspired by the skin of a pomegranate.

In addition to unveiling “Chai” at the June 10 annual meeting, Bodner and the JCC board paid tribute to outgoing board members, including chair Ric Rudman, who passed the baton to new board president Tali Ronen.

Most of the JCC’s facilities, including its fitness center, reopened to the public on June 15, when California lifted its Covid restrictions. The sauna and steam room remain closed.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.