Artist’s Musical Installation Rises With The Sun

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Artist Craig Colorusso arranges his solar-powered musical sculpture on a frozen pond in Plymouth in February. (Courtesy Kevin Belli)
Artist Craig Colorusso arranges his solar-powered musical sculpture on a frozen pond in Plymouth in February. (Courtesy Kevin Belli)

On Saturday an outdoor musical performance will take place at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum here in Lincoln. But there won’t be any instruments on site, at least not conventional ones. Instead visitors will experience a sound collaboration between an artist and nature called “Sun Boxes.”

I got a sneak preview a few months ago when the museum and the artist tested the installation. Once I arrived at the park I heard the sun boxes before I saw them. Their enchanting, ethereal sound — think “Star Trek” — emanated from an army of audio speakers arranged on the lush lawn. But there weren’t any wires. To sing, these boxes require energy from the sun, which can be tricky, according to Deputy Museum Director and Curator Nick Capasso.

“So what we’re doing today is trying to find the optimum placement so they can look their best, get the sun that they’re going to need to perform — because we have a lot of shade around here — and also be positioned in such a way where the sound is going to migrate as much as possible throughout the rest of the park,” he said. He added, “It’s uncanny how far away you can hear this.”

The installation has what Capasso called “a Pied Piper effect” on visitors. Artist and rock musician Craig Colorusso has seen it, too.

“Sometimes you don’t really know what it is, but it’s sort of pulling you in,” he said with a smile.

Students from the Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership tested the "Sun Boxes" installation. (Courtesy deCordova)

Students from the Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership tested the "Sun Boxes" installation. (Courtesy deCordova)

Colorusso created “Sun Boxes” in 2009 for an exhibition at the Goldwell Museum in Rhyolite, Nev., called “Off the Grid.” There are 20 speakers in all. Each has a solar panel on top and a PC board inside that holds a pre-recorded, looped guitar note. Each wooden box has a unique look and sound, but Colorusso sees them as a collective. He refers to his installation as “an array.”

In performance the sound rises, falls and repeats, depending on the weather. In full sun the music gets louder; when the clouds come the volume drops. Sometimes, Colorusso says, the sound stops all together.

“But the cool thing is when they stop inevitably they start up again when the sun burns through and they all start at the same time,” he said. “The first time that happened I was freaking out, of course. After the initial shock it was beautiful.”

On the test day the sun was bright and relatively consistent. But people can affect the sun boxes, too. Your own passing shadow — or even your hands — can alter the overall sound of the piece. In fact the artist encourages it!

It didn’t take long for a group of curious kids to respond to “Sun Boxes'” siren call. They enthusiastically volunteered to tell this radio reporter what they thought of the installation, starting with introductions.

“I’m Max Paul and I am 9 years old,” a bright-eyed boy said. “And it’s cool because I’m not sure exactly how it works but I think they attach speakers to the solar panels.”

The perceptive group, from the Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership, included 10-year-old Henry Luettgen.

The sun boxes on a Cohasset beach in April 2010 (Courtesy Craig Colorusso)

The sun boxes on a Cohasset beach in April 2010 (Courtesy Craig Colorusso)

“It’s practically music made by the sun,” he mused, “cause you know, these solar panels hooked up to the speakers, so it gets its energy from the sun so it’s like the sun’s creating the music.”

Then classmate Owen Murray chimed in, “And I bet if there were clouds then you won’t hear anything because there’d be no sun.”

That astute observation reminded me to ask the artist about the pending weather. Rain or even an extremely overcast sky could force the artist and the museum to reschedule their one-day “Sun Boxes” performance. But Colorusso doesn’t sweat it. In fact he said this installation has taught him many things, including the art of patience.

“This wasn’t an initial reason to do the piece but sometimes you don’t get what you want when you want it, and it’s nice to be reminded of that in a very aesthetically pleasing way,” he said.

Then he added, with a somewhat-reserved laugh,“So yeah, I do hope for the best, but we’ll see.”

“Sun Boxes” will perform all day Saturday at the deCordova. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, a rain date will be posted on the deCordova’s website.

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