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Sun Boxes Are Musical Solar Installations

Credits: ©2010 Sun Boxes

Sun Boxes were created by American musician and light and sculpture artist Craig Colorusso. They are a solar-powered sound installation comprised of twenty speakers, each operating independently. 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. As the loops are different in length, once the piece begins they continually overlap and the musical composition slowly evolves over time. Participants walk amongst the speakers, and surround themselves with the piece and music. As certain speakers will be closer to the visitor, the resulting music will sound different depending on their position. This allows the audience to move around the boxes, creating a unique experience for everyone. Without batteries, the installation relies on the sun for its power. When the sun sets, the music stops and does not start again until the sun rises. The musical piece also changes as the length of the day changes; because the amount of sunlight varies from day to day, so does the composition of 'sun boxes'.


Sun Box Sound Installation

Sun Boxes is an experimentation with sound and solar energy by artist Craig Colorusso. Boxes are constructed with wood, topped by solar panels, with speakers, amplifiers and electronic sound modules to create a musical experience as visitors walk amongst the boxes. ©2010 Craig Colorusso

Colorusso writes, “The piece creates space. It is an environment for one to enter and exit. The footprint of this environment occupies is similar to that of a city: a metropolis. It is a burst of technology in the middle of nature. Unlike most cities I have been to, it does not just take over the space. Instead 'sun boxes' interface with the environment and collaborate with nature. It is the perfect combination of technology and nature that create art, an environment, and a metropolis. We are all reliant on the sun. It is refreshing to be reminded of this. Our lives have filled up with technology. But we still need the sun and so does SunBoxes.”

The following article about Craig Colorusso appeared in The Recorder
Striking a chord
by Arn Albertini, November 4, 2010
“Sun Boxes” is a sound installation. Each of the 20 speakers stands about 18 inches high.

Like a guitar amp, the back of each is open and inside is a custom-made circuit with a sampler and amplifier that has a recording of Colorusso playing the B-flat sixth chord on a guitar. The speakers are each powered by a small solar panel, which sits atop the speaker.

(“Sun Boxes” has been on display in various locations such as Massachusetts and Nevada.)

Often, people come to the exhibit and stand outside the array of speakers, said Colorusso. “I say ‘It sounds different inside. You should definitely feel free to walk around and do whatever.’”

“People should walk through it, sit for a while. Then leave and come back.”

“I don’t really like to tell people what to do, but I think it sounds better the longer you stay … You start to hear the chord fold and unfold. And you start to get to hear the sounds of the surrounding area, which is one of my favorite parts of the exhibit.”

“Sun Boxes” were on display in Turners Falls, Masshachusetts, for the first three weekends of November 2010, from 11 a.m. to sunset on each day. Colorusso was on scene for each of the nine days for the length of the exhibit to answer questions.

Evolving sound
Each of the 20 speakers plays the same Bflat sixth chord. But, that doesn’t mean it will always sound the same, Colorusso said. “The piece keeps evolving, so you won’t hear anything repetitive. The piece keeps changing and people are constantly moving in and out of it so people will always hear something different.” Since the sun powers the speakers, if it’s really cloudy or raining, they won’t work, he said. “One of the cool things that happens is that as the clouds move in and out, it turns some speakers on and off. That changes the piece.”

Also, the sounds of the surrounding environment, like a plane flying overhead, become a part of the exhibit. “All the combined sounds of the environment enter into the mix and it makes it sound musical.

“(The exhibit) is loud enough where if you’re standing in the middle, if you listen, you can hear all 20 speakers. It’s loud enough, but not oppressively dominating. You get the sense of 20 things making sound in the environment. “You hear all kinds of great things.”

How the speakers are set up depends on the location, said Colorusso, adding that he works to integrate the display into the environment. “The goal is to try to make it so at some point, people feel like they are surrounded by speakers. Other than that, I try to put them in a way that makes sense with whatever the landscape is. For example, when the display was on a beach in Cohasset on the east coast, Colorusso set up the speakers to get a good mix of the sound from the waves as well as from the boxes themselves. “From my point of view, I’m just trying to get out of the way. I feel like I just create a system and let it run.”

In Turner Falls, Massachusetts, with three days at each location, Colorusso said he’ll be changing the arrangement each day.

All the speakers are made of the same wood: Baltic birch. But each box is different because of the unique characteristics of the wood used to make it.

“When you look closer, you see the little differences that signify the speakers as individuals.”

The B-flat sixth chord is made up of four notes, said Colorusso. “It is just a very beautiful chord.

“I went through a few B-flat chords before I settled on the sixth. I definitely wanted something uplifting.

“I wanted the chord to resolve itself. I wanted there to be just enough dissonance so it’s kind of interesting and makes participants focus on it, but it’s not too dissonant.”

If the chord is too dissonant, the experience won’t be as calming, Colorusso said.

Sound roots
For many years, Colorusso played guitar and sang in several rock bands.

About 15 years ago, he decided it was time for a change. “I loved being on tour, but didn’t like playing in bars.”

As a musician, you work really hard to play music. Then, you get together with others and end up playing in a space not really designed to hear music, like a bar, Colorusso said.

He wanted to do something more with sound. Something where people could interact with sound. “I wanted to play music, but I didn’t want to play songs and I wanted to incorporate other things like light and sculpture.” So, he began creating sound installations.

“I just wanted to make a space where people would feel like they’re entering a new space,” Colorusso said. “That’s the key to it.

The physicality of it.”

Colorusso says there’s a physicality to bands and the music they make but, he adds, “It sort of just feels like it’s touching on the surface of what it could be.”

In each of his installations, Colorusso works to transform an environment.

For his first project, he collaborated with Joel Westerdale, who played drums in China Pig, a band or which Colorusso used to sing and play guitar. They created the installation “Maschine,” which took place in Miracle Printing in Danbury, Conn. Along with the guitar and bass clarinet, played by Colorusso, and the drums, played by Westerdale, they used the shop’s offset printers as instruments.

Among Colorusso’s other pieces: “Duet in B,” in which live guitar and violin music was played through speakers hidden within the walls of a maze-like structure; “Cubemusic,” in which six independent audio channels transmitted from six aluminum cubes outfitted with an independent lighting array; and “Songs Like Paper,” an instillation of recycled paper, glue, paint and gentle guitar music.

Then, Colorusso got a call from his friend David Sanchez-Burr. “He said ‘Come up with something solar.

We’re going to the desert.’”

It was an invitation to a residency at the Goldwell Open Air Museum in Rhyolite, Nev., in June 2009.

The purpose of the residency was to create off-the-grid arts or arts that made use of alternative energy. Colorusso came up with his “Sun Boxes.”

Besides the Nevada desert, “Sun Boxes” has also been on display on the a grassy field on grounds of Important Records in Groveland, next to a golf course; the parking lot of Forced Exposure, a music distributor in Malden; a beach in Cohasset; and, in September, at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport.

For his earlier pieces, Colorusso worked to transform an environment by blocking out the outside, like blackening windows of exhibit halls to block outside light so that the exhibit was the only source of light.

His sun boxes “just become part of the environment as opposed to the other pieces where I go in and try to take over,” he said. Also, the sun boxes have opened him up the idea of incorporating the sights and sounds of the environment, like a plane flying overhead.

3D sound
Although he built the sun boxes in 2009, Colorusso said a version of the idea had been in the back of his mind for some time.

Asked how he got the idea, Colorusso said, “That’s a question that comes up a lot and it’s hard to answer … to be honest, 39 years of making observations.”

One of those observations happened while on tour with China Pig. The band was traveling in south of the United States and, one night, he happened upon a field full of fireflies.

“We were driving down a highway with all these strip malls and there was a big open space (with) all these flies and it was beautiful.

“At first, I said ‘Wow, look at all these little lights.’” But, as he studied the fireflies, he reliezed the varying sizes of their lights was helping him get a sense of how big the field was, Colorusso said.

The sun boxes try to replicate that experience.

“The sun boxes create a three-dimensional space with sound … I turned the visual experience into a sonic experience,” he said.

Colorusso, who used to live in Northampton and now lives in Hingham, found out about the River Culture’s search for exhibits to sponsor from his friend Neil Young, a Turners Falls resident. When he’s not having fun with sound, Colorusso, 39, works as a carpenter.

Involved art
River Culture works to promote and expand arts in town. Typically, that has meant a more traditional view of arts, like holding contests for downtown sculptures or helping to organize a countywide art exhibition.

“Sun Boxes” is the first exhibition in its Producer’s Series, which is aimed at having people think of familiar downtown spaces in new and interesting ways, said Coordinator Lisa Davol.

Also key to the series is having a participatory experience, she said. “We want to get people moving around town … to experience it in a way they’re not used to.”

Colorusso’s proposal fit the goals of the series to a T, she said.

“It was really unique. It just proposed something completely different.”

The project, one of five submitted, also lets a lot of people take part in the exhibit and moves them around the town, Davol said. “It was the most interactive of all the proposals we got. “You’re not going to have the opportunity to hear anything like this around here any time soon. It’s really an experience not to miss.”

The project also fits nicely with the town’s recent designation by the state as Green Community, said Davol. “We’re seeing what we can do without electricity. (The sun boxes) just use sunlight.”

Last spring, Montague was one of 35 communities across the state named a Green Community for its efforts to reduce energy costs and encourage more energy efficient and sustainable practices.

For his sun boxes, Colorusso got $1,700. River Culture is still trying to decide on the winner of the second Producers Series grant.

Earlier this fall, Colorusso brought a few sun boxes to test them out downtown, Davol said.

They were set up in Peskeomskut Park and members of River Culture walked around the park and across the street to see how they sounded.

“It’s not a constant sound. It’s going to ebb and flow. It’s more like a wind chime effect,” said Davol. “It completely transforms the space into a different type of environment.”


Sun Boxes Solar-Powered Music Installations