The roving Music Box Village in New Orleans’ City Park. Photo: William Widmer

A Musical Village Takes Root in New Orleans

After four years of semi-permanent and roving installations, the arts organization New Orleans Airlift is ready to build a permanent town of musical architecture.

This article was originally published in 2016. New Orleans Airlift is back on Kickstarter with a new project to take a new Music Box Village installation on a cross-country tour of the United States. See it here.

Five years ago, Jay Pennington faced the weathered remains of a collapsed eighteenth-century Creole cottage. Sitting on a plot of land in the Bywater section of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and battered by the winds of Katrina, the cottage was a fragile remnant of the city’s history he wanted fiercely to preserve. From that urgency an extraordinary idea emerged.

“We asked [New York-based street and installation artist] Swoon to come down and look at the property,” says Delaney Martin, with whom Pennington co-founded the arts organization New Orleans Airlift in 2008. “Jay knew he wanted to do something with performance and installation. In talking about music and performance and houses, and performers playing in the house, we had the eureka moment: they’re not playing in the house, they’re playing the house.”

Photo: Melissa Stryker

Along with Pennington, Martin, and mechanical sculptor Taylor Lee Shepherd, Swoon (a.k.a. Callie Curry) conceived the idea for Dithyrambalina, a “sonic playground, performance venue, and laboratory for musical architecture” made of salvaged materials from the cottage. Step on a floorboard here, and tuned creaks and groans might reverberate through an amplifier. Pull a rope there, and a whirring fan might force air through corrugated tubes, creating otherworldly tones.

This wouldn’t just be a novel art installation paying tribute to New Orleans’ distinctive architecture and musical heritage. To the creators, it was more: a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, and of the value of pleasure and play in a community still struggling to rebuild.

The creators decided to prototype the musical house concept before building the more imposing Dithyrambalina. The first Music Box was their proof of concept: a “shantytown sound laboratory” comprised of several musical houses. New Orleans Airlift invited twenty-five visual and kinetic sound artists, architects, and inventors to build the sonic structures. “Sometimes five people were working on a single house, working to make a musical village that harmonized, that felt of one piece,” Martin says. “That became a guiding principle — everybody knows they’re part of a bigger vision.”

The first Music Box installation opened to the public in 2011. By day, people from the community were invited to pass through and experiment, creating cacophonous and harmonious sounds. A visitor might create a slide guitar-like wail out of a set of sliding doors, or run a hand along clapboard siding for a percussion-like rat-a-tat. One could pick up a telephone and send their voice sailing over loudspeakers, or call another phone in another house to set off an orchestral chorus of rings. A stethoscope broadcast the heartbeat of passers-by through a spinning speaker. A singing wall sampled the voices of those who walked past, then filled the empty space with their echoes.

Photo: Bryan Welch

By night, the village was home to intricate orchestral performances, harnessing the structures’ full musical potential. Thurston Moore, Andrew W.K., hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh, production duo Javelin, Tijuana’s Nortec Collective, and many more came through, lending their curiosity and expertise to these remarkable instruments.

The Music Box marked the beginning of a much more extensive enterprise. Soon after, New Orleans Airlift and collaborators rigged up the musical structures to be transportable so that they could rove from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. This modest empire of melody expanded to New Orleans’ City Park and Central City neighborhood, and to Shreveport, Louisiana, and Tampa Bay, Florida — hosting performances from Wilco, Solange Knowles, Cajun outfit the Lost Bayou Ramblers, NOLA jazz band Preservation Hall, and more. The collective traveled as far as Kiev, Ukraine, at the invitation of the U.S. embassy there.

Preservation Hall at The Music Box. Photo: William Widmer

Now, the project has returned home. New Orleans Airlift is creating a permanent village of musical architecture that they hope will become an enduring and beloved part of the community.

The structure Swoon originally created, Dithyrambalina, is still in the works, and it will eventually become part of the new Music Box village. The appeal of this permanent installation — which will still be altered and augmented year over year, as new artists and collaborators join the project — is its capacity to welcome more visitors, more artists, more musicians. “It becomes less important that people actually live here [in New Orleans] in order to see it,” says Pennington. “People will be able to come visit throughout the year.”

“We’ve also deprived the musicians of any real rehearsal time or any real attempt at a residency, any attempt at really refining their sound,” Martin says. “Now we have the opportunity to go bigger.”

Like the original Music Box project, the Music Box Village will be located in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, at the base of the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, which connects the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward. The site is apt: the project, like the bridge, is about forging connections.

“Everywhere we’ve gone, the project has had the same impact: it gets people talking and working together, people who might not otherwise have been talking or working together.”

“[The village] creates this autonomous space for experiencing things with other people and literally falling into rhythm with them. We’ve seen it be this amazing glue for a community, this utopian space where you start to have ideas about different possibilities,” says Martin.

Artist Theris Valdery at The Music Box. Photo: Melissa Stryker

And like the original project, the Music Box Village is animated by a spirit of harmonious collaboration. A house does not belong to one individual artist so much as it belongs to the village, and to the community of musicians and others who come to interact with it. “The Music Box is the outcome of so many different idiosyncratic visions and talents coming together, but all channeled through this prism of what we’re trying to do,” Martin says.

For now, the 55,000-square-foot forest that will one day house the Music Box Village is little more than a gravel-filled plot; Martin and Pennington are sorting out drainage and are in the process of obtaining the proper city permits. Pathways through the village are being sketched out with stakes and neon rope. And inside the adjacent New Orleans Airlift warehouse are the bones of that village: musical houses from Music Box installations past in various states of assembly. Soon they will be restored, rebuilt, and tuned up, and the wild symphonies of the Music Box will begin anew.

The latest Music Box Village project is live on Kickstarter until May 23.

Rebecca Hiscott is Kickstarter’s Engagement Editor.

Photo: Bryan Welch