The musical and artistic success story of 2011 returns for a month in City Park with new instruments, new performers, but the same philosophy.

music box photo
The Music Box in process, by Bryan Tarnowski

Big chunks of City Park appear largely unreclaimed, particularly the parts that were once golf courses that ran along much of the length of Wisner Drive. Turn on Harrison and where a green once stood partly guarded by a pond, a new, temporary Music Box is being built. It’s not obvious from the road—I drove past it the first time—but a sun-scarred patch or hardpan just off the road is a parking lot of sorts, and workers periodically walk the tire-worn path back to cement structure decorated with one of New York artist Swoon’s paper-cut paste-ups. From there you cross the bridge to a weed-surrounded clearing where a series of structures have been erected. Most seem in keeping with their surroundings—made with reclaimed materials with an emphasis on improvisation more than niceties—but unlike the growth in the park, they’ll be gone in a month.

“The Music Box: The Roving Village” is the official name for the musical art installation/performance that has moved into City Park. It’s a more mobile incarnation of The Music Box, the yardful of musical architecture in the Bywater that was one of the artistic triumphs of 2011-2012. This time there will be seven instruments, though Delaney Martin, artistic director of New Orleans Airlift and one of the founders of The Music Box, is careful not to call them all structures, preferring “musical architecture.”

“One or two defy structure,” she says.

The strength of The Music Box in all its incarnations is the way the space, instruments, buildings and concepts are open to associations and echoes. The ramshackle nature of the structures inevitably evokes the city after Hurricane Katrina, but they also look like a 12 year-old boy’s dream. They’re responsive to locations; the Bywater Music Box was very much a part of an urban neighborhood, while the structure Martin built with Taylor Lee Shepherd is more consistent with the architecture in Shreveport, where it was initially part of a roving residency last year. The instruments are serious, but there’s a clear element of play in playing them—a characteristic that was emphasized in the original Music Box when neighborhood kids hung around and played them when they weren’t in use. The City Park Music Box will be open to the public Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. except on show days.

The success of that incarnation of The Music Box led to the “roving residency” in Shreveport, where Airlift quickly found 25 sympathetic visual and musical artists who wanted to be a part of the experience. That Music Box is still in place with locals programming it, but it has a few holes since some of the pieces moved to City Park.

“I’ve heard the local arts council is going to make a call for new musical houses to replace the ones we took away,” Martin says. “They’re trying to keep it going and for us, that’s a very exciting moment. We like ownership of the project to some degree, but we’re all about collaboration, and to see it take a life [of its own] and have twists and turns and have others take ownership of it is a lovely thing.”

The Music Box: Calantheon Canyons in Shreveport, LA May, 2014 from New Orleans Airlift on Vimeo.

Additional Music Box residencies are in the works or have been proposed, which has forced members of Airlift to think about how to grow, particularly since one possible Music Box would be a time conflict with another.

“Who in our cachet of artists can I trust to go and do it the way we like to do, which is engaging local audiences, local collaborators, and local cultural influences?” Martin wonders.

The Music Boxes were initially conceptualized by Swoon as “Dithyrambalina”—one house with instruments built in an integral way into its architecture. The Bywater Music Box started life with that in mind in a house that sat on the lot that became home to The Music Box. When that building proved to be structurally unsound, Airlift first considered building Swoon's musical house on the lot, then decided to do The Music Box as a way of experimenting with prototypes for the instruments that might go in it. When the house on the lot collapsed, its wreckage gave artists the raw material to build the first Music Box, which also included a small, wooden model of the dream Dithyrambalina that was fit discreetly into a nook in the visual overkill of the yard/orchestra pit for homemade instruments as a reminder of things to come.

After The Music Box closed in 2012, Airlift began looking seriously at trying to find the land where it could build Dithyrambalina, but finding and acquiring the space was a challenge.

“One day we will build Dithyrambalina when we have a permanent site,” Martin says. “Swoon has realized that might be a ways off. Her house will be very expensive, but we want it to be glorious, and that will take a lot more money and a lot more experience.”

Martin throws out five years as a possible time frame, but not with the sort of conviction that says start the clock. In the meantime, Swoon wanted to be a more integral part of The Music Box. She helped start the project and posted her art on the fence outside, but she didn't have a musical house she could call her own. This time, that's rectified.

“She made one of these small houses this year, and was like, When can I do another one?” Martin says.

Whatever the future of the single house concept, the word “Dithyrambalina” might not accompany it to the end. “We were going to call the whole project ‘Dithyrambalina’ but nobody wanted to say it,” Martin says. “Nobody even wants to verbalize it, which we realize is a problem.”

Taylor Lee Shepherd has a tractor and is using it to get instrument/structures in place. A tree fort-like building towers over the other pieces in place, including what looks like a concession stand that could sell cotton candy and funnel cakes at parish fairs. It was made by students at Georgia Tech, and its windows have triggers attached to them that connect to a synthesizer. The musician who plays it will do so by opening and closing different windows to sound different notes. Shepherd rolls up next to it with a piece hanging from a tractor’s scoop and, slightly before he’s ready or in position, it drops off. 

“Luckily, that’s not an important piece of that house,” Martin says, laughing as it happens. 

It’s just an entryway piece with no obvious musical significance—yet, anyway. The Music Box structures are made to be played in specific ways. Andrew Schrock’s “Chateau Poulet” has fans protruding out of the raised house and is designed to be played by a musician pulling the ropes beneath it. 

“The house itself will come alive with movement, and so will the player,” Martin says. The original instruments were made to play in specific ways as well, but the musicians who performed in them found their own ways to work them. Guitarist Rob Cambre’s familiarity with treated guitars meant that bowing and beating the strings on a building’s dulcimer-like instrument worked better for him. It’s equally likely that as artists explore the instruments in the days leading up the opening weekend performances April 3 and 4, they’ll find musical expressions the artists never imagined.

If any damage was done when Shepherd dropped the walkway, he would be the one who’d fix it anyway. He is the designated musical handyman for the project as well as an artist in his own right. Shepherd made a shed with a wall of samplers for the first Music Box. Performers could load vocal notes or any sounds into them and play melodies through the sequence with which they played the samplers. He also created “Altarpiece”— a Prospect.3 satellite installation with a series of televisions in a church translating sound into visual representations on antiquated televisions. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline came to New Orleans to play an improvised guitar duet show with Rob Cambre in the church to participate in Shepherd’s art.

He stands on the perimeter of the City Park space and counts off the instruments he contributed to. “The Shake House that Delaney and I designed—I did the instrument in that one,” he says. “Swoon’s house—I did the tech for the instrument for that one. The Georgia Tech one over there—I wasn’t the head on the tech stuff, but I was there marshaling the project along. I was there in Atlanta for six weeks making sure the project keeps going.” 

Shepherd has no formal background in art, electronics or music instrument construction, but he got into construction right out of high school. At the same time, he became interested in noise music, working with loops and circuit bending. Over time, his general mechanical aptitude made it possible for him to work on bikes, cars, and whatever was asked of him. 

“This project takes all of those skills and puts them to task,” he says. “The joys of it are problem solving around technical stuff like making sound, which was always on my mind. But also doing this electrical. I’ll also be doing the lighting design, which is also a joy to me.”

The Music Box is in his words, “an outdoors electronics project, which is not ideal,” particularly in a city as damp as New Orleans. Behind The Shake House, he proudly gestures to a pile of waterproof boxes that he has collected and stockpiled for when he might need them. “Finding them is one of my passions,” he says. Shepherd has to fit his electronics into those boxes to keep them weather-safe, which requires a little engineering on his part. “It works out, usually.”

The story continues tomorrow with musicians talking about playing The Music Box as well as a preview of the weekend's performance. Tickets for Friday and Saturday's performances are on sale now.