The musicians and conductor William Parker work on making musical architecture make music.
(The Music Box: Roving Village City Park opens Friday with concerts at 7 and 9 p.m., then Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m. It will remain in place until May 10, and it will be open to the public on the weekends from noon to 6 p.m. Yesterday, we presented the first half of this story, focusing on the journey of The Music Box from The Bywater in 2011 to City Park today. I also have a story in The New Orleans Advocate on how musicians handle the challenge of playing uncommon instruments.).
During the Bywater Music Box days, Quintron was the primary conductor, and Luke Winslow-King served as conductor once. Quintron has experience with homemade instruments having invented a few himself, and wrote out by hand a narrative concept that he distributed to the performers accompanied by loose instructions to guide their musical choices in each section. Once showtime arrived, he directed the individual performers with a series of paddles, signaling for some to lay out and let others be heard, or coaxing players to swell and be big. He largely managed the dynamics of the group to shape the sound made by a series of tonally imprecise instruments into music.
In City Park, William Parker will take over the baton with little advance knowledge of the task in front of him. He was sent drawings of the architectural instruments and ideas of what they planned to sound like. Fortunately, Parker’s experience leading the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra led him to develop a system that he refers to as “self-conduction.”
“Musicians were able to bring themselves in and out as they feel,” he explains. “I’m hoping to use some element of self-conduction as well as them reacting to what I’m doing on the bass and my actual signaling them to do things. But I hope my signaling will be a limited thing because I want them to be able to listen and react to sound themselves.”
The musicians Parker will conduct come from a variety of backgrounds. Cambre, Quintron, and New Yorker Cooper-Moore (who makes his own instruments as well) have a background in improvised music, and they’ll be joined by vocalist Tarriona "Tank" Ball from funk/hip-hop/spoken word band Tank and the Bangas, Marion Tortorich of indie rock band Sweet Crude, and cellist Leyla McCalla, who performs Haitian folk songs on her own and has toured with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Music Box lineups have all been similarly eclectic, with performers ranging from Chicago electro-punk artist Magas to Lady Tambourine Rosalie Washington to transgender vocalist Baby Dee to hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh.
“We look for people who are playful, people who are open and not intimidated or insecure about how people will perceive them succeeding or failing,” says Airlift’s Jay Pennington, better known as DJ Rusty Lazer. “Every project we do at the Airlift is deliberately experimental, which means it may fail. We look for musicians who are good listeners and are known for that in their community. People who know how to listen to a conductor but also know how to listen to each other and respond to each other, as opposed to trying to play over the top of everything. The people we find for the collaborative concerts are so different from each other that it definitely requires a good ear.”
Parker has spent much of this week helping the musicians get familiar with their instruments and his composition, “Circular Pyramids.” Performers have been penciled in for specific instruments, but if he decides that some are better in other instrument/spaces, he’s prepared to move them around.
“Who can manipulate and get sound out of which instrument the best?” Parker hopes to discover. “Then put the best person in the proper house.”
The challenge of conducting a collection of uncommon instruments is to figure out how to get music, not just sound, out of them. Because of the imprecise nature of their constructions, some of the instruments are hard to tune, which makes melodic expressions hard to do well.
“It’s all connected to the idea of working with non-western, non-tempered instruments,” Parker says. “Every instrument has a temperament, but it’s not necessarily based off of European music. All we’re doing is extending the concept of, This country works with bamboo. This country has maple trees. This country has mud and logs that they make instruments out of. This country makes strings out of rope. It’s an extension of that without trying to copy that. You have architects who say, We’re going to make houses that make sound—and your house already does make sound. I’ve played with drummers who in the middle of a concert would stop and play the floor. And play the railings.
“Everything’s an instrument. I’m in my kitchen right now and I’ve got pots. [bangs them with a spatula]. I’m just hitting stuff. It’s an extension of that concept, and it should be fun. We want everybody to have fun, and make a statement, and make something that is beautiful and strong, all at the same time.”
There is no unified PA for the show, so each instrument’s sound will only come from its structure. How the audience hears the performance depends on where in the space audience members sit, and the instruments closer to them will likely be more prominent than the others. Martin refers to this as “spacial sonic differences,” and the notion that each person has a slightly different experience while watching the same performance is a plus for her. Airlift has taken steps to make this easier to appreciate by changing the seating. The Bywater Music Box had a set of bleachers at one end of the lot, but in City Park there will be a series of benches built by Andrew Schrock with the same reclaimed, raw aesthetic of the structures scattered between the instruments. There will be no de facto front or lead instrument, nor any best seat in the house. Instead, every seat is equally good and equally problematic in that none gives a listener a definitive experience.
“Is there a right way to hear sound?” Martin asks.
Taylor Lee Shepherd is stomping on the bridge. It’s a WPA-era cement bridge on what used to be the City Park golf course’s East Course, and he’s trying to find the spot with the best sound. It’s Thursday afternoon before The Music Box’s Friday opening in City Park and just for fun he wants to put a contact microphone on the underside of the bridge so that the sound of the crowd filing in to the see the concerts Friday and Saturday will be audible before the show.
The architectural instruments are all in place and finished. Near the middle of the space is a phone booth, and Tank performs by slouching into it as if she’s trying to have a private conversation. Her words are being broadcast through the rotating speakers on top though, and the speed of the rotation renders them slightly obscure. They’re chopped into literal soundbites, and she’s working that, growling and talking romantic baby talk that loses semantic definition while her meaning remains clear.
Quintron steps out of the Shake House to tell me about the coolest instrument, but he can’t explain it exactly. He tries, then finally insists that the best place to hear the show is near a collection of metal sheets that the mystery instrument affects.
The musicians are going through a dress rehearsal, which is uneven. The quiet passages are compelling, but louder sections lose collective steam. Many of the musicians were still getting familiar with their instruments, which affected their ability to be expressive.
“I think I can control the intensity of the sound, and I’m learning to control how big it can get and how small it can get,” says Leyla McCalla. She is pulling the ropes in Chateau Poulet, and on the surface, there’s only so much she can do. The fans she operates create an airy whir that is as much a textural sonic component as anything else. But in this collection of instruments, that counts. Still, it’s clear that the process is wearing.
“It’s the most physical thing I’ve done, which I guess means something as a cellist,” she says.
But the bigger challenge is hearing each other. Quintron remembers how close the structures were to each other in the single-dwelling lot in the Bywater, and how the walls on the houses on either side helped to bounce the sound back. In the wide open City Park, the shacks and shanties are appropriately farther apart, but that and a light wind cause the musicians to struggle to hear and respond to each other.
“It’s hard to build energy when you can only hear yourself,” he says.
According to McCalla, part of hearing each other meant learning to recognize each other. Before rehearsals began, Parker walked everybody from instrument to instrument so that they could hear each one individually and be able to isolate the sounds during group moments. Since some instruments are louder than others this afternoon, that training helps.
The New Orleans Airlift vibe is firmly imprinted on the afternoon. The band is doing one thing while guys are trying to work out the sound. Someone’s eating, some friends are there with a baby, and a woman is hand painting the “Will Call” sign on a piece of wood in her lap. The space has started to take its trademarkable jerry-rigged shape. Wires now run from the tops of wooden poles, and a boardwalk takes a circuitous, wild mouse-like route that connects many of the buildings to the Georgia Tech concession stand, which now takes three people to operate. One opens and closes the windows, but there are also two percussion stations, one with a mushroom-like field of little cymbals. During the rehearsal, I see that the windows don’t simply sound notes when opened or closed, but they will also sweep up and down in pitch depending on how open they are.
Jay Pennington demonstrates the windows, which work on light sensors. Some are more light-sensitive than others, but Pennington says they should work better once the sun goes down and there’s less competing natural light.
During the rehearsal, the piece of the concession stand walkway that Shepherd dropped while placing does, in fact, become musical. Marion Tortorich moves away from her percussion station to start playing the railing.
In the middle of the space on a minimal stage is Parker, who has his upright bass and a horn with him. He does little demonstrative conducting; in fact, he often looks like a musician without a home in this context. But according to Rob Cambre, he has been instrumental in getting the players to the point they were at.
“‘Play to the room,’ he said.”
Parker suggested that rather than try to fight the space, that they adapt to it. If nothing else, that philosophy keeps everybody sanguine, though no one seems exactly happy. Parker’s flexibility also helps the overall sense of confidence. When parts of his planned score didn’t work in an earlier rehearsal, he scrapped them and focused on the parts that did.
The day ends with another effort to improve the players’ ability to hear each other. A few monitors have been set up, and the monitor check goes most monitor checks do—with a guy in a black T-shirt telling someone to play while another guy in a black T-shirt tweaks knobs until a feedback squeal tells him he went a dial setting too far.
The musicians make plans for one more rehearsal, chat, then filter out across Shepherd's bridge. McCalla stops to reflect on the process.
“I’ve never learned an instrument one day and then played it the next day,” she says. “It’s a really cool process; it’s very freeing.”
Update April 3, 2:26 p.m.
The performer playing the windows, Labanna Babalon, has been identified since the story was first posted.
Updated April 3, 3:54 p.m.
The video was added after the story's initial publication.