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.