The Music Box in the Bywater: A House in E Major

James Singleton plays The Music Box in the Bywater. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

James Singleton plays The Music Box in the Bywater. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The dark, ramshackle house at 1027 Piety St. was a haunting presence on the block even before the flood. It was the oldest house on the street, dating back to the end of the 18th Century when it was surrounded by swamp and muddy sandbars built from the seasonal overflow of the Mississippi. Since 1999, wayfarers were constantly shuttling in and out of the place, congregating on the porch and playing an assortment of esoteric stringed instruments. At one point, a busload of clowns parked out front.

The punishing winds of the 2005 hurricanes pushed the old house closer to its demise, even as more artists and musicians came through. Caledonia “Swoon” Curry decorated the front porch with her ethereal wheat paste constructions. In 2010, Swoon came up with the idea of building what she called a Dithyrambalina—a house made with built-in musical instruments. With the cooperation of the property owner Jay Pennington (who works with bounce artist Big Freedia as DJ Rusty Lazer) and his partner in the New Orleans Airlift project, artist/curator Delaney Martin, Swoon constructed a small scale model of the Dithyrambalina and Martin began to organize the project.

Then the partially demolished house decided to make its own contribution.

Martin had approached the New Orleans Museum of Art, which had presented Swoon’s work “Thalassa” earlier this year, to help as a sponsor. “We had a meeting in the back yard and they were very supportive,” says Martin. “The subject of safety and insurance came up, and while we were assuring them that it would all be very safe, the building collapsed.”

The concept evolved into a series of nine shacks, including a quarter scale model of the Dithyrambalina, built out of the remains of the collapsed house and other material salvaged from post-Katrina ruins. Over the course of 2011, dozens of artists, musicians, artisans, builders and sound engineers—what Martin refers to as “our community”— built “The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory” behind a fence covered by Swoon’s art with musical sculptor Taylor Lee Shepherd depicted at the center conjuring the Dithyrambalina.

By the time The Music Box opened to the public, it was every bit the little village its organizers dreamed of. At the head of the village is The Singing House, created by musical curator Quintron. A simple pole topped with a G-clef-design weather vane, funnels to collect rainwater, and a computer pad to reflect sunlight allows the weather to play the instrument, making sounds ranging from a clatter to a humming moan. “I’d been prototyping my weather-activated synthesizer for a while,” Quintron says as he pours water from a gallon jug labeled “Rain Water” into one of the funnels and nods approvingly at the sound it makes. “It has to be rain water because it’s more conductive than distilled water.” As we talk, a freight train rolls down Press Street and blows its horn. The Singing House moans in harmony. “It is in tune with the train whistle,” Quintron affirms. “It’s a major chord, E Major. We didn’t plan that. It was a nice coincidence. It’s the best idea I’ve had since the Drum Buddy, which was about 10 years ago.”

Mannie Fresh and Quintron at the Music Box in the Bywater. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Mannie Fresh and Quintron at the Music Box. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Across from The Singing House is Benjamin Mortimer’s Lookout Tower Drone Organ, a staircase-like construct built with pipes from the St. Matthews Church organ, which was destroyed during Katrina. Behind the tower is Micah Learned and Elizabeth Shannon’s small, beehive-shaped, glass-and-tin structure, Glass House, which contains the Tintinnabulation Station and Rattlewoofer. Angeliska Polacheck and Colin McIntyre built the Tintinnabulation Station out of what looks like a lace wedding dress draping the inside of the Glass House. The bells, chimes and percussion objects fastened to the fabric respond to the movement of anyone who enters the Glass House with a tinkling cacophony. Delaney Martin’s Rattlewoofer offers a bold contrast in sound. When the car subwoofer speaker installed into the back of the shack is triggered by a foot pedal, it literally rattles the house.

Further back, Jayme Kalal’s oyster shell-roofed Water-Organ evokes an ethereal, gurgling effect from keyboard-triggered sonic waves driven through water; and Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s The Gamelatron—Pendopo at the End of the Universe presents four Balinese gamelans triggered by an arcade button mandala. The random notes produced by this configuration are among the most distinctive and soothing sounds produced in the village.

Behind The Singing House are two structures by Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, Nightingale House and Heartbeat House. Nightingale House includes the creaky-board Noise Floor by Rangit Bhatnagar and Patty O’Connor’s steel and copper contraption Echo Wall. Right next to it, and roughly at the center of the village, Heartbeat House contains the ingenious Thumper and Doppler by Rainger Pinney and Jonah Emerson-Bell. The simple instrument, a digital stethoscope connected to a set of spinning speakers, allows a heartbeat to set the base rhythm of any piece played by The Music Box orchestra.

Looming over the village is Eliza Zeitlin’s massive, two-story River House, which connects to Aaron Kellner’s Control Tower and Bridge. The River House is filled with musical curiosities, including a Percussion Lair designed by Ratty Scurvics; Rocking Chair, an evocative haunted house device by Simon Berz outfitted with strings that play through an old radio; and Ross Harmon’s Built-In Auto Harp and Bathtub Bass. Harmon also built a Hurdy-Gurdy Dulcimer into the structure.

Across the bridge into the Control Tower, Taylor Lee Shepherd’s Voxmurum allows people to talk, sing or rap into a microphone that creates audio loops triggered by mahogany panels fastened to the wall. The sounds emanate from behind the wall, creating the effect of listening to someone in the next room through thin walls. This versatile design was demonstrated to great effect when Big Freedia recorded some samples.

Theris Valdery in the Music Box in the Bywater. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Theris Valdery in the Music Box. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

 

The village is open to the public on weekends and many visitors come to play it, but New Orleans Airlift organized three concerts with musicians from around the country who agreed to come and play the houses in three scores conducted by Quintron. The debut show on October 22 was a madhouse.

“We had people enter through the back on Rosalie Alley to keep from interfering with street traffic,” says Shepherd. “But the line still stretched all the way around the block to Piety Street.” Hundreds of people were turned away after the yard was completely filled. “People were offering $100 to come in,” says Shepherd. “Some people got really mad they couldn’t get in.”

Quintron was surprised at the response.

“Delaney envisioned creating a laboratory for sound and that’s exactly what this is,” he says. “It’s exceeded my wildest expectations of what it could be. This was my conducting debut. I’ve worked with the 9th Ward Marching Band, but this was true conducting when you’re looking at the performers and making eye contact and bringing them up or down in volume with the movement of your hands. We had an improvisational road map. I designed a nine-step sequence of events with a very loose set of signs that people could follow. In general, the musicians were chosen according to their ability to listen and improvise. My biggest concern initially was that the instruments would not be playable, but I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t think it would work. I really appreciate all the creativity that went into this.”

Mark Bingham of Piety Street Studios worked on the speaker system for the village and played the Gamelatron at the first concert. “We had three rehearsals,” he says. “We had a lot of plans, but as it turns out some of the houses were still being built at the last minute. We tried using monitors, but that didn’t work out so we relied on Quintron’s direction. There were parts where we all played together in a swell, then were some brief solo and duet parts. There was a score, kind of like one of those Glenn Branca scores from the 1980s where there’s no notation. It had to sound different depending on where you were. There were so many people there was no room, so they had to sit in the dirt.”

Quintron promises that The Music Box will close out its run with a bang on December 10.

“Probably my favorite improvisational drummer in the world, Michael Zerang, is coming in for that one. Andrew WK is coming from New York, although I know him from Detroit. A bunch of noise musicians from Detroit will be involved. This one’s gonna be noisy and as high energy as you can get on this stuff.”

The New Orleans Airlift plans to decommission the village after the final concert. But completing the Dithyrambalina, with the elements of The Music Box built into it, remains the long-term goal.