Sisters building a giant interactive music box

ASHLEY GOELLER COURTESY PHOTO | Geddes Levenson (left) and Kelly Goeller with one of the drums used to create the music box.

Like many young girls, Cutchogue sisters Kelly and Ashley Goeller had a music box in their younger days. Tiny and crafted from metal, it played the theme song from “The Pink Panther.”

Little did the Goeller girls know that as adults they and a friend would build a music box that would barely fit in most garages for the FIGMENT Interactive Sculpture Garden on Governors Island in Upper New York Bay, a half mile from Manhattan’s southern tip.

Construction plans for the larger-than-life-size instrument began in February, when freelance artist Kelly, 26, and Ashley, 20, a sophomore at Parsons School of Design, were sitting around their Brooklyn apartment with a friend, 26-year-old painter Geddes Levenson, a graduate student at Pratt Institute.

“We were thinking of applying to the FIGMENT Interactive Sculpture Garden and we were brainstorming ideas,” Ashley said.

FIGMENT was formed in 2007 as a one-day participatory art event free to the public on Governors Island. Since then, its offerings have grown substantially. Beginning in 2009, the island’s parade grounds have temporarily housed sculpture projects by local artists that people can interact with on weekends from June 8 to Sept. 22.

An artist’s rendering of the giant interactive music box that will be installed on Governors Island.

The trio believed they could come up with something creative enough to be accepted for inclusion in the competitive program. But what? They kicked around a few ideas before gazing over at the sisters’ old music box, sitting on a table.

“We thought, ‘What if we enlarged it?’ ” Kelly said.

So they did. After FIGMENT accepted their proposal, the sisters and Ms. Levenson set to work constructing the instrument, which is 10 feet wide and four feet high, from wood and steel. The music box will work in much the same way as much smaller versions. Pegs on rotating drums will strike tuned metal strips to generate individual notes.

The big music box will have two handles rather than one. Cranking one handle will produce the melody of an original song composed by their friend Alex Nelson; the other handle produces the harmony. Depending on how quickly the handles are turned, any number of arrangements and rhythms can be generated.

“Everyone these days listens to music digitally. It’s very individual,” Ashley said. “We wanted to make it collaborative, so in order to play the song two people have to turn the handles.”

The Goellers and Ms. Levenson needed close to $5,000 to obtain the materials for their project. FIGMENT provided a partial grant to get them started, but they needed an additional $3,500 to bring their vision to fruition. To reach their goal, the women created a page on Kickstarter, a website that enables donors to help finance creative projects.

“We chose Kickstarter because you set a certain number of days and if you don’t reach your goal you don’t receive any of your money,” Ashley said. “We thought it was a really good way to rally people for our cause.”

Rally they did. In less than two weeks the women reached their $3,500 goal, receiving donations from people as far away as Australia.

“Complete strangers getting behind the project was amazing,” Ms. Levenson said. “It makes me feel so full of faith in the project and the idea that people will really appreciate it because they believe in it without even seeing it.”

That’s not to say creating a giant music box hasn’t been challenging. Ms. Levenson has taken wood crafting and metalwork classes but the Goeller sisters work predominantly in the visual arts.

“I’ve never been an engineer,” Kelly said. “Figuring out how to create a machine that has to work with gears and bearings is all ne w to us.”

Any frustration the women felt is dissipating daily as the project nears completion. They expect to finish it by the end of the month and transport it to Governors Island by June 8.

“You can see it. You can feel it,” Ms. Levenson said. “Now that we’re physically working on it, you can see the progress we’re making. You can see how it’s going to come together.”

The music box creators say if they receive additional funding they hope to move the instrument to an art gallery or museum once its run on Governors Island ends on Sept. 22. If not, the music box will likely need to be moved to a storage facility. Housing the music box in a gallery is “one of our goals,” Ashley said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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