Sound Boxes that Strum in the Sun

BY Saskia De Melker  March 17, 2011 at 1:26 PM EDT

This weekend, the Indianapolis Museum of Art celebrates the start of spring by throwing a special three-day concert, starring the sun as conductor of a 20-piece orchestra of solar powered speakers. For Sun Boxes, an installation by sound artist Craig Colorusso, each box is programmed with a different loop of guitar notes that overlap and react to the natural fluctuations of cloudiness and sun, creating evanescent melodies.

Art Beat recently talked to Colorusso about the installation:

How did you decide to make a sound installation using solar panels?

In November of 2008, my good friend and long time collaborator David Sanchez Burr called me up and said, “Yo! Come up with something solar, were going to the desert.” He hung up and I thought about it for a while. In June of 2009, Dave and I accompanied Richard Vosseller to Rhyolite, Nev. We had a residency called Off The Grid at the Goldwell Open Air Museum. It was an idea to make art using sustainable energy. Sun Boxes was my contribution. That’s the short answer; the truth is, I have been thinking about this for a long time.

 
Explain the basic elements and set up of the Sun Boxes — what is each box comprised of and how do they relate to each other?

It’s comprised of 20 speakers, operating independently, each powered by the sun via solar panels. Inside each Sun Box is a PC board that has a recorded guitar note loaded and programmed to play continuously in a loop. These guitar notes collectively make a Bb chord. Because the loops are different in length, once the piece begins they continually overlap and the piece slowly evolves over time.

 
How does the weather affect the sound of the sun boxes?

The obvious connection with the weather is the sun. Since there are no batteries involved with Sun Boxes, the piece is totally reliant on direct sun light. The sun also adds a volume variable: more sun means more power which means more volume. This variable can sometimes involve clouds. If clouds cover the sun, they can either cause Sun Boxes to lower in volume or turn off altogether. Sun Boxes is a system that improvises with Mother Nature. Physically, it sits in any landscape, and sonically, the music interacts with the ambient sounds of the environment. At a recent showing in Turners Falls, Mass., Sun Boxes was next to a large tree filled with birds. They stayed the whole time making bird sounds. Behind the tree was a river, and in front of the tree was a main street. Somewhere between bird sounds, river sounds and traffic sounds, Sun Boxes existed very nicely in the mix.

 
Where have you installed the sun boxes?

So far Sun Boxes have been in the deserts of Nevada, the fields of Connecticut, and the beaches of Massachusetts.

 
What are your expectations when you observe how people experience the installation?

I encourage people to enter the array. The piece sounds different inside, surrounded by speakers. Most participants are very familiar with the locations before Sun Boxes come to town. Its remarkable when people see things they never noticed before. Sun Boxes has the ability to transform a space.

 
What are your plans for your next sound installation?

After observing Sun Boxes in different settings and thinking about it, I have thoughts on expanding the piece in several directions. I’d like to make a 100 speaker version, a home version, and an interactive website to be launched soon.

 
Editor’s note: Jeffrey Brown talked to sound artist Christopher Janney about his interactive sound installation for a New Jersey amphitheater. And Art Beat interviewed musician Andrew Bird about performing with custom-built speakers that create a special sound environment for his performances.