It’s a rainy afternoon in April, and New Orleans-based electronic musician Quintron is getting soaked in the middle of an abandoned golf course. All around him are houses: a little more ramshackle than your average dwelling, with a lot more whimsy. As he points to each one, it begins to play.
Quintron serves as the conductor for the Music Box Roving Village. It’s the newest installation of interactive experiments in musical architecture produced by arts collective New Orleans Airlift.
In this edition, artists from around the world collaborated to build playable houses — homes designed with instrumental elements built in. There’s one house with a pulley system made of carburetor belts that connects to whistling fans spinning and howling at various frequencies. Another house plays deep, reverberating bass tones by stepping on the floorboards. Another is surrounded by massive, swinging wind chimes.
The village is open to the public and anyone can try to tickle a tune, but Airlift also invites local and national musicians to play the houses together in performances. This April afternoon is a rehearsal for one of these shows.
(Credit: New Orleans Airlift)
Listen to Luke Winslow King playing Chime House, and Quintron talking about conducting a show.
Airlift team members Delaney Martin and Jay Pennington (a.k.a. DJ Rusty Lazer) conceived the first iteration of the Music Box in 2010. Pennington was getting notices from the city that he needed to either clean up or knock down the blighted creole cottage on his property in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. They invited international street artist Swoon to come down and help them design a house that could function as a performance space and an art installation. Just as the group was starting to gain steam, the house fell down on itself.
“That moment was actually really liberating for Swoon,” says Martin. “She was really happy to start from scratch. But the idea was very much to use the materials there.”
Starting with the materials from the creole cottage, Airlift created a shantytown of playable houses on the lot on Piety Street. The roving village is set up now in New Orleans City Park. Martin says that reusing materials remains central to this new version of the Music Box.
“This is very much an ode to New Orleans culture and music,” she explains. “So how can we combine the two and take salvaged materials and imbue the stories and the places they came from into new structures?”
With music and architecture both so central to New Orleans history and culture, it makes sense that the two would come together naturally. Martin says that the notion applies elsewhere too. She says that as the project has gained popularity across the country and the world, people all over have been attracted to this idea that microcosms of cities — models like the Music Box Village — could bring to life a cross section of the architectural elements of cities with their unique cultural trends.
“So if you go to Miami, for example, it’s like Art Deco and pastels and like Miami bass and Cuban music and you can kind of feed these things all into each other and see how cities kind of weave their cultural influences,” she says.
The installation really is city-like: There are infrastructure elements like wooden walkways connecting the houses over swampy, low-lying sections of the park and an electrical system overhead designed to bring power and electricity to the entire village. The lighting was rigged by Airlift’s artistic director, Taylor Shepard, who is credited in the Music Box program as the village’s civil engineer. As the go-to guy for mechanical design, Shepard’s domain is over more than just infrastructure. He’s also the one responsible for transforming an artist’s vision for blending sound and structure into a sonic-spatial reality. From there, he says, it’s up to the visitor to figure out to play it.
“There’s a certain set of people who just go ‘I don’t understand what’s going on’ and they just move on,” says Shepard, as he opens and shuts a pair of windows and winces at the resulting boings. “And there’s another set that goes ‘Whoa I get this entirely!’ and they just can do it. And sometimes one of those people will be standing by the other and that person will go, ‘oh, I get it’ and it changes their whole perspective.”
These moments of discovery are what the artist Swoon seeks to inspire through her art too. Known for her rice paper prints on abandoned buildings and structures in cities across the world, Swoon designed one of the village’s houses in collaboration with New Orleans blacksmith Darryl Reeves. Swoon describes the experience of wonder she hopes to activate with her projects: “I am always looking for this moment whereby two or more really unexpected things come together in such a way that the person seeing them is totally thrown off guard and very disoriented for a moment. And that in that disorientation you get fresh eyes.”
(Credit: New Orleans Airlift)
Listen to Swoon describing Delphine Brass House and kids playing it.
Delaney Martin says that in the case of the Music Box, architecture and music coming together as those two elements can inspire people to think about the world a little bit differently. She says that experience of reimagining can be most important for people who are not used to considering possibility for change in their lives.
“A lack of options defines a lot of people’s lives, not just people who are super-disenfranchised. I think when you create something new like this, and it’s not so far out that people can find their own way into it, you kind of just give them the possibility to imagine their own life a little differently.”
(Credit: New Orleans Airlift)
Listen to a child playing with Fan House.
Martin says access for all New Orleans residents is a big part of why this iteration of the Music Box is portable. She says that, despite the fact that the original box was five minutes from the Lower Ninth Ward, nobody there knew about it. This time around, she hopes that will be different. Airlift hosts educational workshops for school groups across the city. After their tenure in City Park, the group plans to install the village in the Treme and Central City neighborhoods, as well as the Lower Ninth. She says she hopes that the setting can bring new awareness of New Orleans neighborhoods too.
“To bring people to that part of the city and be like, ‘holy cow there’s still no grocery store, there’s still all this stuff that’s not been built,’ will be salient, I hope.”
And, Martin says, despite the international interest, Airlift’s focus right now is on New Orleans.
“Even though people are inviting us to go to other cities in the country with this, in a way we want to just bring it to our city first.”
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.