Harmonicas become sculpture in Stetson U.’s ‘Harmonitrees’ virtual exhibit


As all harmonica players and fans know, the 10-hole diatonic harmonica is the simplest instrument to get music out of, while offering limitless possibilities for professional virtuosity.

And now, at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, that harmonica is at the center of the virtual Harmonitrees exhibit at the university’s Hand Art Center gallery.

The latest in composer/installation artist/oboist Sky Macklay’s “sound sculpture” art installations, Harmonitrees involves eight sonic, kinetic and inflatable sculptures that resemble pine trees and employ the artist’s “deconstructed” harmonicas in producing musical sounds. The exhibit runs tomorrow (Oct. 17) through Oct. 23 at the Hand Art Center website.

Macklay earned a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in composition from Columbia University, and began creating her sound sculptures six years ago after seeing an inflatable, dancing tube person in front of a car dealership. Each of the sculptures at her Stetson set-up includes suspended harmonicas (Hohner Blues Band models) with their cover plates and draw (inhale) reeds removed, exposing the metal reed plates and blow (exhale) reeds, and plastic combs (into which a player blows or draws air in vibrating the reeds and producing sound).

The deconstructed harmonicas are then affixed to the transparent plastic “walls” of the Harmonitrees structures.

As diatonic harmonicas come in different keys, the sculpture on display in the Hand Art Center’s foyer will have harmonicas in G and D keys. The seven sculptures displayed in the gallery will have the tonic major chord of each key: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D and E.

Macklay spends at least three days constructing each sculpture, which is formed by the transparent plastic sheets and between eight and 12 harmonicas. Other materials include zip ties, wire, a high-powered fan in a wooden box, and foot-button with power chords and smart plug.

The height of each Harmonitree is between five and 10 feet, making for visual variety as well as varied “sonic envelope,” or sound as it changes over time from beginning to end.

When the fan is turned on, it fills the structure with air and creates pressure that pushes air through the harmonicas and vibrates the reeds to create a drone sound—essentially mimicking the effect of a harmonica player blowing into the instrument. Virtual viewers are then able to observe how the sound and vibrations are created, as the air blown upwards by the fan escapes through the deconstructed harmonicas, which have been intentionally affixed to the plastic at air-escape points.

Macklay selected the harmonica after considering nonhuman ways to play wind instruments. Harmonicas belong to the free reed instrument family, which means they freely vibrate with only air and don’t require a specific embouchure, or lip-shaping, in order to generate sound. Hence, a very simple robot, or fan-generated air current, can play them. 

She also loved the harmonica’s timbre after experimenting with many harmonicas that were playing together. The experiment led to her first installation, Harmonibots—a sonic and kinetic construct of inflatable harmonica-playing robots–at the Waseca Art Center in Waseca, Minnesota, in 2015. The sound sculpture won the Ruth Anderson Prize from The International Alliance for Women in Music.


“The Harmonitrees exhibit is unique and innovative because of the inclusion of motion into a three-dimensional sculpture, and the incorporation of the viewer and their role in the sculpture’s performance,” says Hand Art Center director James Pearson. Adds Macklay: “I hope my installation creates a joyful experience for everyone. It is tempting to be nihilistic during a global pandemic, so I want to counter that by making people smile, and perhaps inspire them to think more broadly about sound, music and art–along with being more creative in their own lives.”

Stetson’s assistant professor of digital arts Chaz Underriner secured funding for a one-week residency for Macklay as a visiting artist and composer.

“Sky Macklay is an excellent composer and interdisciplinary artist who creates whimsical and interesting work,” says Underriner. “Her exhibit will provide virtual viewers with a fun installation that combines bright, musical sounds with inflatable sculptures. The installation is a breath of fresh air that I think we can all use right now.”

Underriner will moderate a free livestreamed artist talk with Macklay via Zoom on Oct. 20. An improvised concert featuring the inflatable sculptures (also including seven beach ball-shaped inflatables filled with air by Stetson’s Sculpture II students), to be performed by Stetson School of Music faculty and students, will be recorded and made available at Hard Art Center’s website at a later date, with Macklay playing oboe and Underriner on electric guitar.