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Sound Sculptures: Music Boxes

This sculpture is made up of four music boxes hidden along the forest paths in Wolfville. Each box plays a short piece I composed based on the birds I could hear in the forest during my week in Nova Scotia. The boxes play at different speeds depending on how much light is shining on them at any moment.

Click here to hear a recording of this sculpture. In this recording two of the boxes are actively playing because they have sufficient light. Apologies for the horrible audio quality.

When I started this project I expected it to be fairly straightforward. Perhaps I would simply link a solar panel to a motor, to a music box. However, a long, frustrating, and ultimately educational journey through the idiosyncrasies of solar panels, motors, capacitors, and batteries led me to the more complex design you’ll see below, featuring an Arduino computer in each box to control and adjust the whole setup.

After settling on using an Arduino to control the circuitry, the first step was to get to grips with the electronics and programming required. I bought an Arduino and breadboard, went through a few of the projects – relearning my C++ from high school along the way – and after some experimentation arrived here:

That’s the computer and electronics that sits inside each of the boxes. Basically, a light sensor reads the amount of light shining on the box, and the computer uses this reading to set the speed of the motor (using PWM on the transistor). This whole setup is plugged into a battery, which is attached to a solar panel.

As I live in the UK, I shipped all of the parts to the home of my wonderful friend Angela, who was kind enough to accept a stream of parcels. When I arrived I found lots of treats awaiting assembly…

All the bits.

The assembled innards of each of the music boxes.

From here, the marvellous Cailun Campbell (pictured below) and I started building the wooden boxes that would hold the music boxes. Cailun was kind enough to offer his woodworking skills, instrument repair knowledge, family workshop, wood, and charming company. This project wouldn’t have been possible without him. Here he is cutting wood for the boxes:

We mounted the music boxes on the base of the wooden boxes, and the battery and electronics along the side. These music boxes work a lot like a player piano – there’s a sheet of paper that you can punch holes in to create a custom piece. I came across these music boxes a few years ago in Ottawa, and had been looking for a project to use them in ever since.

I wrote the pieces for each of these boxes while sitting in the forest right where they were going to be placed. It was great to be able to write music that is so immediately connected to the time and place where it is to be played.

The music boxes mounted on their bases.

Gluing together the boxes.

The boxes with the electronics and batteries mounted inside.

These boxes were glued together with the music boxes on the bottom. We mounted a lid with a solar panel on top, and made a cut to allow the light sensor to poke out of the side of the lid. The final assembly proved to be surprisingly finicky, as the small area made it easy for the loop of music to catch on the wood and wires. After assembling the boxes, the computer had to be ‘tuned’ to the sunlight to make sure that they would run faster in full sunlight, and not run themselves empty when there was not enough light to charge the battery.

Tuning the computer and sensor

Eventually all of the boxes were assembled, calibrated, and ready to be mounted in the forest. We ran twine through the corners to make it easier to mount them.

Charging the batteries before mounting the boxes in the forest

Finally it was time to place the boxes in their forest home.

Placing the boxes in the forest was a magical experience. They felt alive as they would each stop, go, and change speeds as the light coming through the forest changed in strength and direction. They are surprisingly loud. I had expected them to only be audible to a careful listener, but they can be clearly heard from several meters away. As they began to play as I tied them in place, I could hear the birds that their music was based on all around me through the forest. You can hear a clip at the top of this page.

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