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The Music Box Closes 

Alex Woodward on the history and legacy of the Music Box, the art installation that's made avant-garde music for nearly a year

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  "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.

click to enlarge Ross Harmon built an autoharp and a dulcimer into a deeply resonating chamber in the "River House." - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Ross Harmon built an autoharp and a dulcimer into a deeply resonating chamber in the "River House."

  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.

click to enlarge Callie Curry, also known as Swoon, designed a scale model of Dithyrambalina, which she says will be "diminutive mansion" of musical architecture. - PHOTO BY TOD SEELIE
  • Photo by Tod Seelie
  • Callie Curry, also known as Swoon, designed a scale model of Dithyrambalina, which she says will be "diminutive mansion" of musical architecture.

  "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."

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