Jay Pennington, aka DJ Rusty Lazer, bought a house on Piety Street that seemed hopeless. "The inspector who came out said it was being held together by good wishes," Pennington says. Eventually, Pennington and collaborators from the local arts organization New Orleans Airlift decided to turn the blighted building into "Dithyrambalina," a structure that will work as a 45-foot high musical instrument, playable by visitors. Billed as a "shantytown sound laboratory," it combines architectural and musical creativity.
The concept began taking shape in November 2010 with a whimsical cardboard model created by New York-based artist Swoon (whose large-scale installation Thalassa filled the atrium of the New Orleans Museum of Art this summer). The Piety Street lot is now populated by many small shacks designed by various New Orleans and New York artists chosen by Airlift. The participants have worked on many of these sorts of collaborations since Hurricane Katrina. Each shack is made from the wood from Pennington's collapsed house, and each can now be used to generate music. The final project, expected to be completed within two years, will incorporate all the shacks into one structure.
Aaron Taylor Kuffner's shack is a robotic gamelan (an Indonesian percussion orchestra) controlled by video game buttons. A treehouse by movie set designer Eliza Zeitlin contains luthier Ross Harmon's autoharp, which folds out from the wall like a Murphy bed. The floorboards of Ranjit Bhatnagar's shack are like piano keys played with the feet. They emit loud creaking wood sounds amplified by an improvised reverb chamber and small hidden speakers. The same shack also, somehow, is a trumpet.
Ratty Scurvics created a bunker featuring bells, cymbals, homemade percussion instruments and several makeshift Portuguese adufe drums covered in clear packing wrap that boom like timpani drums. Jayme Kalal — known as one-man noise-rock band Microshards — built a "water organ" that forces a signal through plumbing. Turning the spigots and filling the pipes with water manually filters and changes the sound.
Musician and electrician Quintron describes his work as a "singing house." Several weather vanes are equipped with sensors that control different tones dictated by wind, rain and ambient light. Sunset triggers an oscillating tone that, over the course of 45 minutes, slowly descends one octave, creating beautiful contrasts with the instrument's other droning sounds. "I initially had this idea 10 years ago and recently wired my entire house with one," Quintron says. "It's piped into every single room and it's a very comfortable, comforting sound. We can turn it off, but we live with it all the time, watch TV with it on. It's different at every time of day but always very meditative, and especially beautiful because it's truly played by the spirits."
Once the prototype stage is finished, Swoon will wheat-paste the shantytown with her signature illustrations. She will speak about the project at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 (space is limited). For the opening on Saturday, Oct. 22, Quintron will conduct a group of adventurous musicians, including cellist Helen Gillet, Walt McClements and Aurora Nealand, each playing a different shack. In the coming months the site will host collaborative performances by musicians including percussionist Hamid Drake, experimentally-minded bassist James Singleton and noise doctor Weasel Walter. The space will be open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment.