Andrea Brook “turns the Civic Center into an instrument” this weekend

Andrea Brook directs the installation of her 200-foot long harp, Sonic Butterfly, from her platform in Cowles Commons. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Installation artist and musician Andrea Brook has never been to Iowa before. But as she stands on top of the Civic Center with a 360-view of night-time Des Moines to install her traveling show, Sonic Butterfly, she says that she likes it a lot.

Sonic Butterfly is a 200-foot long harp made up of brass strings, resonance chambers and whatever buildings happen to be around. For her Des Moines shows this weekend, the lucky building is the Civic Center.

The installation of such a colossal instrument is an art in itself. Brook’s crew began setup around 7:20 p.m. on Wednesday night, starting with arranging the platform Brook will perform on, which sits in Cowles Commons. Next, they set up the strings.

Brook uses spools of brass wire for her strings. From the roof of the Civic Center, her team secures the wire into wooden blocks, which they then drop down the side of the building to Brook who is waiting at the bottom. With the wooden block in hand, Brook makes her way carefully across 3rd Street toward the platform on Cowles Commons where she connects that string to the body of her harp. And so the process goes until all 26 strings are in place. Brook estimates that this process usually takes around four hours.

Spools of brass wire used for strings in Sonic Butterfly. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

But the hard work will have been worth it. What audiences can expect this weekend will be nothing short of magical. The harp itself is acoustic, so even without amplification, it can be heard by audiences who sit underneath it. Her website touts the experience as “like being inside YoYo Ma’s cello.”

Due to the outside nature of Brook’s performances, weather is a natural concern. But rain, Brook says, only makes the harp easier to play. The water on the strings adds friction, which is the same phenomenon as when you dip your finger into your wine before running the tip around the rim of the wine glass to make it ring.

“Now normally, I wear cotton gloves and I use violin rosin in order to make my string sticky to create my friction. But if they’re wet, then I’ve got the water to help create friction. So [playing in the rain] is perfectly fine,” Brook explains. “What’s not fine, of course, is the sound equipment. But it is an acoustic harp, so it works even when it rains. And it’s been through a lot of weather experiences.”

Andrea Brook and her team measure string length from the top of the Civic Center. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Brook will be accompanied this weekend by violinist Chris Murphy, keyboardist Christine Law (aka Star Goes Nova) and drummer Brad Ranola. There will be seven free performances taking place in Cowles Commons this weekend as part of Des Moines Performing Arts’ free outdoor programming.

Here’s when you can catch Brook and her band this weekend:

Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 16 at 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17 at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.