A new home gives new life to its collection of musical forts, shacks, treehouses and outhouses.

music box photo
A new instrument at the new Music Box

Wherever The Music Box has been located—on Piety Street, in Shreveport, City Park, or Tampa—musicians have “played” the instruments built by artists into architectural structures. Some structures are the picture of low-tech, such as Elizabeth Shannon’s dome-shaped shaker—a wire cage wrapped in lace on the outside with bells on the inside. Some are less so, such as the shotgun shack with clapping slats and a bass synth activated by stepping on loose floorboards. None of the instruments are tunable, but Jay Pennington of New Orleans Airlift—the organizers behind The Music Box—doesn’t see that as a problem.

“We like to leave that to conventional instruments,” he says. “They’re already made to do that.” 

When Luke Winslow-King conducted a performance in the original Music Box, he went through the effort of mapping out the tones the instruments could produce so that the performers had a better idea of how to play with more melodic and harmonic precision. More often, the musicians focus on textures, dynamics, and the interplay of instruments to wrestle music out of sound.

In all its locations, The Music Box has had feet on both side of the high art/low art divide. The utopian impulses behind it along with the found elements in the physical structures are also hallmarks of naive art, but conceptual frameworks that its organizers in New Orleans Airlift locate it in give The Music Box high art credibility. Its new thunderdome style arena setting looks thrown together with a few gaps in the corrugated tin walls, but they’re solid enough that Pennington envisions a day when a catwalk encircles the performance space, giving people a balcony view of the performance in addition to one from the ground.

What Pennington calls “orchestral” shows have given The Music Box its identity. Those show featured a conductor and musicians from different communities coming together to improvise despite the aesthetic differences tied to their musical worlds. When The Music Box’s last performances in its original Piety Street location, Quintron conducted a band that included improvisors Rob Cambre and Donald Miller, performance artist Baby Dee, Chicago-based electronic artist Jim Magas, and Jazz Fest stage crasher Lady Tambourine. At City Park, Solange, Tank, Luke Winslow-King, Sean Yseult, Sweet Crude’s Marion Tortorich, Leyla McCalla, and Labanna Babalon—a New Yorker who legendarily eight acid for seven days before inserting seven tabs inside herself on the eighth—were among the artists who tried in different combinations to make music on instruments that weren’t conventionally musical. 

The Music Box now has a permanent home where N. Rampart Street meets the Industrial Canal. Structures from most of its stops are included in the new shantytown, but there are new ones as well including a couple of percussion outposts. The Music Box is fenced off and has a shop next to it where artists can build new instruments and repair old ones. Because Airlift has the ability to control the space, it can better address lessons learned from previous incarnations. “The first one was very forward-facing and very much about the audience,” Pennington says. “The second one was in the round but in reverse with the audiences in the middle and the houses facing in. We learned that didn’t work.” In the former case, musicians couldn’t see each other, while in City Park, the space between houses meant they couldn’t hear each other. The new Music Box has monitors in each house, and it offers a number of seating options—bleachers, a raised viewing platform, stumps and logs, and patches of ground to sit on in front of and between the instruments. “We learned that we needed to be forward facing and a little bit enveloping.”

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The programming this fall has leaned toward pre-existing bands, which represents a slight departure from previous incarnations. The members of Wilco, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Lost Bayou Ramblers played in City Park, and those shows illustrated new possibilities for the structures. When the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played, “they treated it like a second line and paraded from house to house,” Pennington says. “Some people played the house; some people played their own instruments. That was really cool and opened our eyes as to what we were missing out on if we weren’t having bands.” Similarly, The Lost Bayou Ramblers worked out a hybrid set-up. “Louis played his fiddle through the telephone booth [outfitted with a rotating, Leslie-like speaker on top],” Pennington recalls. “Somebody else was in another house doing something that corresponded to that, and Andre was just playing his accordion.” 

Some musicians aren’t comfortable trying to wrangle a usable sound out of a booth that looks better suited to selling funnel cakes at a state fair if the windows didn’t emit electronic farts when opened, and Airlift is more open to that in the new Music Box. TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone performed there using the houses only as an interesting visual element. Tank and The Bangas staged a theatrical play of sorts in the space a few weeks ago that used the houses and some of their own instruments, and The Lost Bayou Ramblers returned this past weekend with guests Rickie Lee Jones, Spider Stacy, and Langhorne Slim for a show titled “The Birth of Cajun.” The setting seems to prompt large scale, theatrical thoughts, and when Gogol Bordello closes the fall season on Friday and Saturday nights, it will be with a show casually titled “Western DADA.” 

Pennington booking the season with ulterior motives. Orchestral shows may be the signature use of The Music Box, but he wanted to build up a new pool of musicians who are comfortable and adept in the space in addition to Cambre, Aurora Nealand, Quintron, and Winslow-King, who have played the houses a number of times. They could then be part of future orchestral events and make other shows possible. “We wanted to establish some house bands so that going forward, when we get a request from someone to engage with us who’s a solo artist, we have somebody who can back them up,” he says. 

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The permanent structure makes it possible for Airlift to plan in ways they couldn’t before. Pennington, Delaney Martin, and others involved in the organization have had to fit interested musicians into months-long windows before the structures had to be taken down. Now, they can think in longer terms and be more ambitious. “It really gets us to the musicians who are well known and are so busy that we can’t get them otherwise,” Pennington says.

The space also makes it possible for The Music Box to change and grow. With the adjacent warehouse, repairs and tweaks are more easily done. It’s also possible to retire houses and install new ones. That possibility excites Pennington. “We want dozens more houses. This is the jumping off point, and now we can expand it. Now that we have a spot, we have time to do that.”

He’s also eager to see how the houses will be used. Will people, given the time to practice, become virtuosos on these instruments? Some are so limited that there may be limits to how good anyone can be on them, but he’s already seen hints of what can come to pass. “There’s some people who understand Taylor’s thing [the floorboard-activated bass synth] better than I ever will,” he says. “One guy spent two hours in there one day, and he came out and said, I cracked it. I figured out what’s going on with all those switches and knobs. We said, You can explain it to us because we don’t know. The cool thing about it is that virtuosity isn’t important.”

Pennington would love to see a youth orchestra, perhaps with NOCCA students—one that would learn the instruments, get good at them, figure out what they do, and learn to write for them.

“We want to feel like real village,” he says. “We want people to feel like everything is welcome here.”