If New Orleans houses had voices, they’d probably use them to sing. After all, with their creaky floorboards, rattling windows and thin, shotgun-double walls, their very architecture underscores the centuries-old music-steeped environment where they stand. Or, in some cases, where they used to stand.
In a lot on Piety Street in the Bywater, a group of more than 20 artists have given an amplified voice to the recycled remnants of the 18th Century Creole cottage that previously occupied the space. And where the historic home once crumbled, a series of structures made out of its reclaimed rubble now make up the components of an installation that’s part art exhibit, part symphony — and all New Orleans.
The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory is a series of rambling, house-like structures made primarily of materials taken from the blighted cottage that have then been outfitted with music-making capabilities. Each structure functions as a free-standing musical instrument that visitors can climb inside and play. A satellite exhibition to the Biennial Prospect.2 New Orleans, the shacks also boast visual art appeal, courtesy of street artist Swoon, who masterminded the project with curator Delaney Martin, and created a series of wheat paste designs throughout the miniature “town.”
The shacks represent the experimental first phase of a larger vision for Dithyrambalina, a 45-foot-tall “house” with instruments built into its walls, floors and architectural details, that will be built in this space in 2012.
“The people I really wanted to highlight are all a little bit eccentric, mechanical weirdo sort of inventors and tinkerers around New Orleans, and they’re not a celebrated set,” says Martin speaking over the steady hum and drone emanating from a speaker on the fence behind her.
It’s a cold, gray December Thursday, and Martin is one of a handful of artists repairing instruments in preparation for an upcoming by the Shantytown Orchestra, conducted by the New Orleans-based organist and inventor, Quintron. The show is the last in a triumverate of successful concerts presented by New Orleans Airlift, the arts collective Martin founded with Jay Pennington, who owns the Piety Street lot and co-curated the musicians.
Martin puts down the organ tubes she’s been fixing for Benjamin Mortimer’s Lookout Tower Drone Organ, a spiral staircase that looks like it came straight out of Whoville, the cartoon town from which the Grinch famously tried to steal Christmas. She points to the Glass House, a glassed-in shack that barely contains what appears to be a giant lace bubble called the Tinntinnabulation Station. Inside the white lace structure, hundreds of bells and tinkling metal objects hang down like rain. The bubble is attached to the house in such a way that it can be shaken from the inside to make a pretty, tambourine-like sound.
“I installed a sub woofer on the back of this,” says Martin, turning up the attached “rattlewoofer” to contrast with the sweet ringing of the lace-bound bells.
“To me it’s a total New Orleans sound: someone going by with their car and their sub-woofer and rattling the windows. I thought this was like the perfect counterpoint.”
During the second concert, Theris Valdery, the Flagboy for the Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indians, played the Glass House in full costume.
In the center of the “town” sits the Heartbeat House, a tall, skinny building with a stethoscope hanging from the ceiling and two speakers that spin like a weather vane on top. Built by Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, Rainger Penney and Jonah Emerson-Bell, it projects across the grounds the thumping heartbeat of whomever plays it.
According to Emerson-Bell, the idea was for the heartbeat sound “fill the whole space the way bell towers act in churches and communities to call people to meeting and bring people together for weddings and funerals.”
Behind that, Simon Berz’s Rocking Chair uses induction, light and feedback to invoke low, rumbling bass sounds. Taylor Lee Shepherd’s Voxmurum allows users to record and recycle sound in a similar way to an effects pedal. The Nightingale House experiments with floorboards that creak melodically and the harmonic capabilities of echoes in a wall, while the Gamelatron turns antique Balinese vibraphones into an orchestra operated by robotic mallets and an arcade console. And so on.
All of these instruments and others have been available for the public to use during certain hours of the week since the project’s opening in October. But the concerts — featuring musicians such as multi-reedist Aurora Nealand, Astral Project’s James Singleton, cellist Helen Gillet and producer Mannie Fresh — have seriously amped up the buzz.
That excitement reached its apex a few hours before showtime on Dec. 10, when a ticket line more than three blocks long snaked its way around Piety Street as throngs of music and art fans vied for a chance to catch the last performance of year.
The show kicked off with a calamitous crash, followed by a vast rustling sound that seemed to spread from one end of the camp to the other. Out of the chaos, the Gamelatron emerged, holding down a steady clanging of bells.
As a tux-clad Quintron darted around the mini-town flashing colored, handheld signs, his symphony fell in step with his direction, adding layers of melodic whirs, clicks and rumbles to a changing foundation of rhythms.
In one section, he used a shark fin-shaped sign to communicate with the loud, more cacophonous instruments, while a yellow smiley face indicated when the more melodic instruments should come in and out. Although the pieces were each improvised, they were based loosely around concepts such as this one, which Quintron dubbed, “Fish Fight.”
Musicians ranging from local trad jazz singer Meschiya Lake to multi-instrumentalist and producer Andrew W.K. fell in sync with one another and with Quintron as the energy built, creating a set of sounds that fell somewhere on the spectrum between free jazz and rock-tinged marching band music. The crowd responded with a deafening cheer at the end, then were allowed to wander among the structures, asking questions about each one works.
The Music Box is currently closed for the winter, but plans are underway to reopen in spring 2012, both for public exploration and, Martin hopes, for performances, before construction on the Dithyrambalina gets underway.
To learn more about the Dithyrambalina and New Orleans Airlift, head over to Dithyrambalina.com.