A Shantytown Music Box

Jan 6, 2012

A group of artists are filling New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood with an odd orchestra. They've created a whimsical village of fully interactive musical buildings on a vacant lot, and WRKF's Tegan Wendland went for a visit to see if houses really can make music.


As I walked down a street after a festival in the Bywater on a recent afternoon I noticed an unusual wooden fence around what seemed like an empty lot – it was painted in pastel figures and intricate-cut out patterns and the door was open. But even more striking were the odd sounds of bells and whistles and creaky floorboards inviting me into a whimsical musical village called Shantytown Music Box.

Curator Delaney Martin says the idea for the musical houses just came naturally. "I find that when you say to someone, ‘a musical house that you can play,’ it just triggers something in your mind, like when you suddenly have a really good idea or wonder how someone hasn't thought of that before."

The property used to be home to a 19th century Creole cottage, which recently fell down and was used to make much of the sculpture park. There's a house with a giant bell-shaped wire dress covered in lace that you can stand inside and shake for a chorus of hundreds of bells and miniature bottles, and the New Orleans artist Quintron built the "Sunset Drone," which reacts to weather patterns, cloud cover, rain, and the setting sun through a series of sensory panels, funnels and a weather vane.

Co-curator Theo Eliezer describes the project as a love letter to New Orleans. "Part of the experience of living here is being constantly surrounded by odd noises; creeks and clatters and groans, that just kind of exist alongside of us,” Eliezer says.

Visitor Diane Danthony recently sat on the amped rocking chair which hangs from the biggest structure on the property, the “River House”, and plucked at old guitar strings as each of the chair's creaky movements played through the radio mounted to the wall. It was her first time visiting and she's not a musician, but she says the experience was moving. "It's odd, it's captivating and it does something that ordinary music just doesn't.”

The Music Box has hosted several concerts in recent months featuring well- known musicians. For a show in November saxophonist Dickie Landry of Lafayette played an adapted computerized version of a gamelan, an Indonesian musical ensemble. He says the instrument is totally unlike anything he's played before but he liked the challenge. Not only were the instruments unusual, they brought together a diverse group of performers including hip hop producer Mannie Fresh and New Orleans musician James Singleton. Landry says there's something about the experimental instruments that makes that possible.

"This is rare, the rare of the rare, to have musicians of all different genres. You've got a rapper, you've got a jazz bassist, you've got a rock drummer,” Landry says.

Travis Cleaver attended a recent show and says it was unlike any concert he's ever been to, he says he was surprised by the absurdity of the whole thing.

"They use all kinds of strange, repurposed materials to create all sorts of weird instruments that you've never heard of before, and have probably never existed before!"

Volunteer Michael Glenboski says he loves how it draws the community together, even though not many people know about it. "We had an overwhelming amount of people show up for the show, many were turned away. Another big thing is during the day when the public came out here and the kids are here, exploring, literally tearing them apart sometimes! They've discovered new sounds that the artists weren't even intending for them to make."

Martin says that's the whole point. The design is a nod to New Orleans architecture, and she wants to recognize the city's musical history while giving new life to discarded materials and bringing the community together. Plus, it's really appealing.

All of us have experienced how a house makes noise, whether it's the creaking floorboards or a staircase, Martin says, "I asked some kids who came through here what their houses sound like and one of them said, ‘like my mom blow drying her hair!'"

But the Music Box won't be there for long. The village is a prototype for a permanent installation, designed by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, who is known for her intricate cutout paper murals and handmade sculptural boats which have floated on the Hudson River and the Mississippi. "Dithyrambalina" will be an intricate, full-scale, up-to-code house constructed of salvaged materials.

"Having people partake in the experiment is what it's all about. We could make these instruments in a workshop or a studio, but unless you have hundreds of people coming through, you won't really know what it's going to sound like or how it's going to hold up," Martin says.  

Martin says they plan to tear the whole Music Box down in the next few months to make way for “Dithyrambalina”. It will be open to the public for three months before it becomes the permanent headquarters for the arts organization New Orleans Airlift, run by Martin and Jay Pennington, who owns the property.