A quietly humming miniature town is vacant on a hot afternoon. Everyone has emptied the wood and iron shacks to retire in the shade of a backyard grotto. Thurston Moore sits and stares at the village and takes a sip from a dark pink iced tea.
"What drew me in was the fact it was a completely unorthodox situation to play music in," Moore says. "It was one that had a certain integrity to it, as far as an exposition, this exploded creative impulse. That was immediate to me. That's what had caught my attention, first and foremost."
Moore, Sonic Youth's pioneering experimental guitarist, was invited to perform at the self-described "shantytown" The Music Box, an arrangement of nine musical structures on Piety Street in Bywater. Each structure houses an unconventional handmade instrument, whether a creaking floorboard "piano" or eccentric electronic gizmo, all part of a user-friendly playable village, or musical architecture.
Since it opened last year, thousands of people have visited the site and played its instruments, or peeped over the fence to see renowned musicians record their ramshackle symphonies. But, as planned, it'll soon be dismantled. The installations still remain open to the public Saturdays through June 16. The next phase, a full-scale "musical house" named Dithyrambalina, is under way.
"It was really genuine, as far as presenting something that had to do with architecture, and sound art," Moore says. "The idea of it being transient and ephemeral to some degree, that fact it's going to be dismantled for the sake of necessity, because it can't exist too much longer — I kind of like the living aspect of it. It takes you out of your comfort zone."
In 2010, arts organization New Orleans Airlift, founded in 2007 by curator Delaney Martin and associate music curator Jay Pennington, asked street artist Callie Curry (aka Swoon) to help resurrect the partially ravaged 18th-century cottage at 1027 Piety St. — but it collapsed.
Instead, Pennington (aka DJ Rusty Lazer), who owns the property, and Martin invited artists to cobble together salvageable parts of its remains for The Music Box structures and their instruments. Curry's model for Dithyrambalina, a whimsical gazebo-like cottage, would serve as inspiration — the scale model towers above the village.
"We'd have this one small house, then we got this idea to make it [like] a village and treat it as a laboratory, and give all the sound artists their houses," Martin says. "We got to this idea that rather than build a performance into a house, the house should be the performance. The house should be a musical instrument. It was really a collaborative process to get to that goal.
"Once we settled on that, I realized we had this wealth of artists in the community who are inventors, tinkerers, musicians, and this was not an often-recognized part of New Orleans culture. ... It became exciting to think about tapping into the community that existed here. It is about New Orleans, just maybe a less mainstream ... version of it."
At first glance the structures resemble shacks lining Louisiana bayous, and junkyard instruments, like a bathtub bass that stretches the length of the "River House," don't seem that strange. But that's part of its magnetism; audiences approach something familiar (a house) and are asked to consider what it would sound like. The performers don't necessarily know the answer; recording sessions at The Music Box — some in elaborate arrangements under music curator and composer Quintron and his Shantytown Orchestra, which premiered Oct. 22, 2011 — never sound the same, ever.
"That's part of the charm," Martin says. "Everyone's experience at this is different, depending on where they're placed. You're appreciating music, but you're appreciating this visual thing, the special relationship to houses and architecture — it's a pretty strange, unique situation to put people in."
The deep bass of Martin's "Rattlewoofer," a repurposed car subwoofer, resides inside and shakes artist Elizabeth Shannon's glass-and-tin "Glass House." Ranjit Bhatnagar's floorboard piano "Noise Floor" fills "Nightingale House" by Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, who also built "Heartbeat House," which has a digital stethoscope to amplify a heartbeat-set tempo.
Taylor Lee Shephard's "Voxmurum" is a series of audio loop devices that record and play back sounds and noises from behind a wall panel. Jayme Kalal's "Water-Organ" pushes air through a series of pipes and water to produce a trickling percussive piano sound. Anyone who sits on Simon Berz's "Rocking Chair" sends deep, haunting rocking wooden notes throughout the structures above it.
The curators have invited a diverse range of collaborators to record and perform at the space, including legendary percussionists Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake, bounce artists Nicky Da B and Vockah Redu and producer Mannie Fresh, as well as a broad range of downtown performers, including Walt McClements, Helen Gillet, Aurora Nealand, Ratty Scurvics and Meschiya Lake.
Detroit's rock 'n' roll party monster Andrew WK and New York electronic outfit Black Dice also held court at The Music Box, as did Wilco's Nils Cline and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. Improvised music explorer and guitarist Rob Cambre joined Quintron's Shantytown Orchestra and has recorded several times at The Music Box, including a years-in-the-making session with Moore, a longtime friend.
"He drove me over here and I was pretty enchanted by it," says Moore, who recorded an improvised electric guitar set with Cambre for the first time while at The Music Box.
"Rob and I have always wanted to play a guitar duo together, where we play improvised music, with electric guitars, amps, pedals. In a way I was a little worried, 'How are we going to do that when we're also supposed to play all these jerry-rigged, oddball instruments?' What we said was, 'We're going to play the instruments but also ultimately play this duo,' and the compromise is our amplifiers are going to be situated inside of these houses, which to me works because one of the interests I've had as a touring musician is the stages I play on. I always hope the stages will be wooden. Wood has such a resonance with amplified music. ... Seeing this, it's 99.9 percent wood. It's all about the resonance."
At that evening's recording session, Cambre and Moore face off at the front of the village, their amplifiers housed in the shacks behind them. Droning, swelling guitars echo throughout the space and fade in the breeze, and the duo moves to perform among the structures. They enter "River House," and Moore attacks its exposed piano strings and bangs the walls surrounding them. ("I really got into the open piano strings quite a bit, just because of their thickness, but also because they have so much age to them," he told Gambit. "They're rather deadened, but they're still so strong. For someone who has an anxiety about breaking strings, these strings will never break.") Cambre plays the sound loop bank, punctuating Moore's arrhythmic piano crashes with indiscernible tones and twitches.
Moore moves to his favorite piece, Aaron Taylor Kuffner's "Gamelatron: Pendopo at the End of the Universe." It's The Music Box's most cryptic instrument — a gamelan, featuring four 10-key bronze vibraphones controlled by an arcade button mandala inside a gazebo-like temple. "You can almost play it like second nature — pianistic — and do pattern music on it and fall into patterns that are repetitive with finger-brain exercises," Moore says. "It really interested me, everyone was like, 'Oh, that one, you can't really do too much with it.' I was like, 'Well, I don't know. Let me see.'"
Approaching from St. Claude Avenue, Curry's lace-like art wheatpasted on The Music Box gate comes into view, and a glowing fuzz sound emerges as traffic subsides. The gates opens wide, and inside Quintron's weather-controlled theremin, "The Singing House," plays itself, a gently humming electric sound mimicking waves, interrupted by warm bleeps of varying pitch as the breeze hits its controls.
The Music Box lot is essentially a large brick patio, framed by a wooden fence with houses on either side of the lot and five rows of bleachers. A window air-conditioning unit hums above the space, competing only slightly with Quintron's musical weather vane.
The day's recording session features New York art-punk duo Japanther, as well as New Orleans musicians Native America and Rotten Milk. They convene in the "River House," artist Eliza Zeitlin's large treehouse-like structure with the exposed piano strings and a sound bank of pre-recorded loops, as well as Ross Harmon's autoharp. The patio is empty, except for Neighbor, an old black and white dog who has taken residence in the space.
Japanther drummer Ian Vanek slips into a space under "River House" that's full of drum and percussion bits and pieces, and the other players man their stations, wrangling tuba-like drone sounds and creaking wooden notes. Loudspeakers mounted to the structures' exteriors amplify the instruments and are purposefully aimed to direct sound to fill the entire lot. Vanek lays the beat, and the others fill it with pure sound.
Martin and associate curator and project manager Theo Eliezer sit in the grotto behind the village.
"The first night of the very first performance it was as much of a revelation to us as it was to everyone else, and an exciting one at that," Martin says. "In a sense, our goals were to prototype instruments and test them publicly — with both audience members and professional musicians — making unique music each time it was played by a different person. We definitely met that. Of course there's a lot to learn from and a lot to expand."
It's also a reminder that despite the success of The Music Box, it's only a trial run.
"We wanted to bring to life a lot of these extraordinary artists," Elizier says. "We also needed to test our version of musical architecture, and this has been really successful in that regard, in terms of having musicians of really high caliber, other musicians who've come and collaborated with us, the public, (people) of all ages and abilities, testing it and testing to see if it breaks, or if it's fun, or if it has a dynamic range."
The test runs proved popular. The curators announced The Music Box would be closing several times, only to delay its fate as more performers and visitors asked for an extension. But the next phase, Martin says, could likely top the success of its predecessor. Unlike The Music Box, Dithyrambalina will be a permanent, 45-foot landmark with museum-style opening hours. Its insides are still to be determined, but the intent is to leave no surface without a musical component. Curry's initial design plans and input from architect Wayne Troyer and architectural consultant Michael Glenboski will inform the artists' plans, and vice versa. The artists will receive design plans to mock up instrument ideas.
"It's going to be this give and take until we get to a point," Martin says. "It's going to be very collaborative, very one-on-one to some degree, but also taking in this whole radical collaboration where you're making concessions. You can't do exactly what you want over here, because what if your speakers blow out over there? It's going to be a very complicated — and fun — dance, just like this was."
The next phase of Dithyrambalina will have a strong emphasis on learning. The Music Box has hosted more than 400 students from groups including New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Langston Hughes Academy and Warren Easton Charter High School.
"An educational component of this project is going to be huge for us, and we want it to be," Martin says. "This house could be this creative exercise for students all around the region, and every year there should be busloads coming. What's nice about this house, whether for a student or professional musician, it's a continually renewable resource of creativity."
Japanether's Vanek emerges from the percussion lair, and bassist Matt Reilly descends from the "River House" where he plucked at the bathtub bass.
"There's a lot of good culture going on here, a strong work ethic," Vanek says. "A community of people actually doing something — that's attractive to be around. When we're playing, we're playing the same way a child would play. It's for no other reason than to get out of yourself and participate, something that the end result is fun. A lot of musicians and players lose that idea. .... You should be able to play and have fun with limited means. That's the challenge this Music Box provides."
Days before Quintron unveiled his final compositions with the current iteration of his Shantytown Orchestra, artists from The Music Box gather one last time to revisit their creation.
"There's something about this space that turns adults into children and children into musicians," Pennington says. "There's really nothing else like that."
Curry says the challenge in building Dithyrambalina, what she says will be a musical "diminutive mansion," is holding on to the "strange, magical feeling" that kept The Music Box alive. Whether that will include a cathedralesque frame, or dozens of musicians playing simultaneously in a partial amphitheater, or serving as a pitstop and meeting point for street parades is yet to be determined.
"I want to build this kind of classical yet spontaneous and newly envisioned Victorian, New Orleans mansion," she tells Gambit. "Something so it's really both a gargantuan and very human scale."
When asked what will happen to the structures and instruments at The Music Box once it closes, Martin surveys the village. The gamelan, she says, or some version of it, will likely move into Dithyrambalina. Quintron suggests it could be part of an elaborate doorbell system, with different ringtones for each room. The possibilities seem endless.