Sun King: Craig Colorusso’s weird solar-powered boxes turn a Brooklyn housewares store into a sound-art orchestra chamber

Craig Colorusso's Sun Boxes (sun-boxes.com)
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There’s something fitting about the fact that the release party for Boston sound artist Craig Colorusso’s musical invention, called Sun Boxes, will take place not in a darkened club or a gallery space, but in a cheery Brooklyn housewares shop on a Saturday afternoon (more information here).

Colorusso’s lived most of his life in New England, but he’s spent time in Brooklyn as well. And the daytime scheduling, along with the shop’s big skylights, make sense since his musical invention is a "solar-powered sound installation,” according to Colorusso's website.

Sun Boxes emit a single guitar note in a contiunuous loop when light hits them; the level of heat, and the angle and breadth of exposure (as well as other atmospheric conditions), determine the character of the output, along with the different programming for notes and duration for each box.

Spread 20 or 25 of them around an area, as Colorusso does for his installations, and you get a subtly shifting overtone overdose, as changeable as the weather.

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Even more fitting about tomorrow’s party is that while Colorusso released a Sun Boxes 7-inch last fall (the MP3s are available on Colorusso’s Bandcamp site), that physical object isn’t what the party is for. Saturday’s fete celebrates the arrival of Colorusso’s new Sun Boxes: The App, which recreates the Sun Box experience with mobile devices. The app isn't powered by light—instead, you can choose between three options: Stream, in which "the same continuous cycle of the Sun Boxes sounds that can be found on the website ... It takes roughly three months for the notes to all line up again, which is when a new cycle begins"; Interact, which allows you to combine the note-cycle boxes as you wish, turning on up to 20 boxes on the phone screen, and, if you wish, starting the cycles of each over again; and Collaborate, where you can get together with your friends and create your own version of the live installation. Over the phone, Colorusso helpfully suggested to me that a party of 20 could easily re-create the full sonic experience for themselves—which is basically what an afternoon at the Brooklyn Kitchen will turn into.

For a site-specific kind of project—even one that translates rather nicely to pure audio—an app party makes a certain amount of sense.

“I think so too,” said Colorusso. “I was in a lot of bands, I loved vinyl records, I loved going on tour, but I feel like there’s room to do more. And I feel like Sun Boxes … allow for things other than a band on a stage with an audience in front of them.”

Colorusso is an ideas guy who clearly thinks a lot about what he’s doing, and he revs up easily.

“The start for Sun Boxes was the physical aspect of it,” he said. “I wanted to make something that people could feel like they're part of. And what I like is that as soon as you see it or hear it, you’re part of it, and you decide how far you want to go. It’s designed so that you can stay in the middle of it and be surrounded by the piece. The idea of the app was, now, that people can recreate the idea of Sun Boxes in their own lives to see what happens. I feel that I'm throwing a system out into the world. Here you go! Do something with it! Impress me. I dare you.”

He chuckled.

The app was Colorusso’s idea and realized with the help of fellow Bostonian Jordyn Bonds, whom he knew through rock music and Brooklyn (in that order).

“She's a computer genius,” he said. “She made an app that does this variable volume [setting] for your alarm. On a whim, I said, ‘Hey, can you [make a Sun Boxes app]?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, absolutely.’ So we started brainstorming.”

How did one kind of science, from the physical boxes, transfer to mobile-device software? Was it a matter of transcribing the sounds themselves? Or did Colorusso want the app to have its own sort of logic?

“I wanted to create an experience like it with an app,” he says. “The actual piece is the manifestation of the 20 speakers. There's some differences; I'm not trying to recreate it so much [as] trying to do something new with that same [idea] in mind.” 

Colorusso is not a lifelong maker of new instruments.

"I'm just an old rocker. I was 14 in 1984, so [when] Van Halen's record [1984] came out, that changed my life. I love guitars. I remember my best friend in the world went and saw Van Halen back in 1984, and I couldn't go because my parents were really strict about stuff like that. And he said, ‘Dude, I didn't even hear Michael Anthony's bass. I just felt it rattling my ribcage.’ I was 14, and I was like, ‘That is fucking awesome! I have to have my body rattled by sound.’ That was the goal from that point on.”

“Some music made me feel better, and I think that's a very physical thing. My body was not just hearing sounds that were on the radio; some songs made my body vibrate along with them.

“I have ideas about instruments, I have ideas about sound. I definitely like sound more than music. It's funny, I remember, as a kid, my mother would be vacuuming, and I would try to make a sound that was the same note as the vacuum, but I didn't translate it as making the same note. I tried to make my head vibrate with the vacuum by [humming] an E—I used to sit there and go, ‘eeeeee,’ while she was vacuuming. Right downhill after that.

“I worked with a sound company for a long time, and when we got the white noise going in the room, for levels and stuff, I loved it. I used to do production work for raves, and we had these humongous sound systems. When we were getting them up and ready we would just blast all the white noise out there, and it just sounded beautiful. I remember just standing there and being in awe of it.”

Part of managing a big system is knowing how you want it to sound. When Colorusso initially conceived Sun Boxes for an installation in Las Vegas in June 2009, he first had to figure out what the boxes would do, and what it was all going to sound like.

“I thought, ‘What would it be like to have 20 Fender Champs in the desert playing this chord?’ Fender Champs are my favorite amps. The idea of 20 of them out there was very appealing. And the whole thing really started in a bizarre way. My good friend, Sexy David Sanchez, called me up one day, and he said, ‘We're going to the desert,’ and then just hung up. He's the kind of guy who, when he calls, you take the phone call.”

Well, sure—he’s Sexy.

“He is sexy. Sexy David Sanchez!” Colorusso laughs. “So that was the start of it. Sexy...”—by now we’re both laughing—“and I were there with this guy Richard Osler in in the desert. I mean, that's the goal, right? I'm going to the desert with the sexy Spaniard and the guy named Dick I never met. All we were supposed to do is just make stuff. That was how it was described to me.

“That [first event] was awesome. I had an idea of what Sun Boxes was going to be, and it turned out to be a lot cooler. There are a lot of little details about it that I would love to say that I came up with, but the reality is just the way it worked out. For instance, there are no batteries involved. Ultimately, I chose the music for the Sun Boxes because it’s daytime music. I wanted something uplifting, something that felt like it was daytime, and if there was a battery involved some of that daytime music would leak into the nighttime, and that felt inappropriate.”

Instead, the boxes run on solar cells.

“Since there are no batteries, when there’s more sun, they get louder. Sometimes when the clouds come they get a little quiet, and then sometimes when the clouds come and they’re really dense, everything stops. But inevitably, when everything stops and the sun burns through the clouds, they all start up at the same time and it was really, really beautiful.”

Obviously, the desert seems like optimum conditions for Sun Boxes. How do they work in other weather?

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really beautiful!” he said. “This is the pinnacle of this piece. I can’t believe I have to go back to Massachusetts in a parking lot.’ You know, that sounds lame. [Then] I thought, ‘Wait a second—I live in paradise. There's the ocean, there's snow, there's leaves.... And the thing about Sun Boxes is that it integrates itself wherever it goes.”

But are the Sun Boxes dependent only on the sun, or are indoor performances, with artificial light sources, possible?

“I would like to do a new piece that happens at night with some of the information I have abstracted while I was doing Sun Boxes. The amp does not rely on the sun. I see that as a potential, as far as more possibilities. And now, [with the app], people can go and create their own version of Sun Boxes in the middle of the night somewhere.”

Sun Boxes App Launch Party takes place at the Brooklyn Kitchen, 100 Frost St., Brooklyn, Saturday, Feb. 25, from 2 to 6 p.m.