When the sun set on the Boston Innovation and Design Building this weekend, and the daylight receded from the huge windows of the building’s Dock 21 space, a different kind of glow took its place. Large plastic cubes—like adult sized versions of a child’s set of building blocks—began emitting colored light of their own as the Sound Sculpture installation began. As visitors watched, the cubes lit up one after another, filling the wide, industrial space with a gentle wash of light that changed from blue to green to red. Ethereal, almost hypnotic, music echoed throughout the space and accompanied the lights, and visitors drew closer to the cubes, fascinated by what they were seeing. Before long, the visitors began to play.
Created by Ryan Edwards and Andrew Hlynsky, Sound Sculpture took over the Innovation Building’s Dock 21 space on Friday and Saturday, creating an interactive work of art made something as ephemeral as sound, a physical experience. Consisting of 25 large cubes made from a softly fogged plastic, the installation invited the public bridged the divide between music and physical art, creating their own pieces of music by moving the blocks around the space. But such an innovative concept was a long time in the making.
The idea originated with Edwards, a Boston-based artist with a background in West African music. For Edwards, this fascination with the connection between music and movement began in his youth, when he had the opportunity to play an instrument during one of his high school dances. Delighted by the people dancing to the music that he played, Edwards realized that “this is why [he is] on the planet,” and became determined to understand “that secret ingredient or recipe” that makes a piece of music “danceable.”
When he was 19, this curiosity led Edwards to sell his possessions and travel to Guinea. Where he lead travel tours and studied the area’s traditional song and dance—a genre that Edwards explained the “original interdisciplinary.” Unlike European song and dance, where music is often set to music, Edwards found that the two entities were truly one entity in Africa’s traditional, folkloric song and dance—a realization that played an important part of Edwards’s formation as an artist.
After about 10 years, Edwards returned, coming to Boston to study Musical Performance and Africana Studies at Berklee College of Music, working as a composer and artist in the area following his graduation. Slightly unorthodox in his approach, Edwards would begin a piece with paint, clay, or even Legos, building a physical structure that the music he created ultimately stemmed from. In this way, Edwards prepared himself for Sound Sculpture, building the skeleton concept before he even knew what he was doing.
But once the idea of making music physical became concrete, Edwards toyed with the concept, reaching out to friends and colleagues, and applying for grants. Edwards also recruited Hlynsky, a fellow drummer whom he had met at Berklee, to become the technical director of Sound Sculpture.
Although Hlynsky and Edwards had vastly different backgrounds, Hlynsky had more experience in instrument development and sound design, they made an excellent team. Together, the two artists finessed the details of the piece, ensuring that the piece would be accessible to the public—making music intriguing and enjoyable even for those who hadn’t been lucky enough to have musical training—and ironing out its appearance. But as Hlynsky explained, the technology behind Sound Sculpture required “a lot of trial and error.”
Facing the challenge of how to bring what Hlynsky called an “interactive, musical building blocks set” to life, the duo turned to Belgian developers, and used their own experience in coding software, to unravel the complicated world of indoor positioning technology—something that, despite the reliance many have upon their phone’s GPS, is still nascent in the tech world.
Eventually Edwards and Hlynsky developed a system where four electronic anchors, each placed in a corner of the exhibition space, make a giant, invisible grid in the room. Inside each cube lies a chip allowing the block to register as a point on the grid which corresponds to a set of coordinates. A computer, located toward the back of the space, sends out a signal to the cube to determine its location within the room, triggering a specific sound and color of light based upon the cube’s location.
The music would come from visitors moving the blocks around, something that slowly dawned on people as they interacted with the blocks each night. This “emergent understanding of the environment” delighted Hlynsky, as well as Edwards who was entranced by the delight that people expressed while playing with the blocks.
“I was pleasantly surprised, you know it’s kind of like how simple can you make something [that] people can just love,” Edwards said. “And playing with blocks is just plain fun.”
But Edwards explained that the fun of giving adults the license to play with blocks came within the “parameters” of “other people,” making each night unique and exciting. When one person built a tower, another might alter or disassemble it completely. Some visitors built up, but others built diagonally, and every single arrangement resulted in a new composition of both light and sound.
For Edwards, this unpredictability is part of the fun.
“In public art, you can’t finish it in the studio, you can only get it ready,” Edwards said. “It gets finished in the wild, you can only make it durable, premeditate a few things, and see what happens.”
And even though Sound Sculpture has left the Innovation Building, Edwards and Hlynsky plan to continue sharing it with the public, and already have invitations to present the work within the coming months.
Who knows what shape it will take by then.
Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor