New Orleans Airlift’s new Music Box, presented by the Helis Foundation, is billed as a roving village in City Park. But the houses don’t so much rove as reverberate – with musical notes, whistles, toots, bangs, telephone rings and assorted other sounds produced by a creative array of wires, cables, synthesizers and sub-woofers, metal sheets and cast-off construction materials, the whole assembled by energetic teams of artists, engineers, musicians and freethinkers.
It’s a space, says Airlift project manager Tori Bush, that’s meant to be enjoyable and magical.
And it is.
“We spent all of last year building the houses,” Bush explains, gesturing at a circle of seven offbeat architectural constructions that sit in a quiet glade under giant live oaks just off of Harrison Avenue.
Each house was built by a team of artists, one from New Orleans, the other from elsewhere. Thought went into the pairings, with visual artists mixing with musicians, or welders collaborating with sculptors.
Thus street artist Swoon, well-known for her input into the first Music Box in Piety Street during Prospect 1, teamed with New Orleans blacksmith and metal worker Darryl Reeves. The Delphene combines Swoon’s lacy overhead etched roof with Reeves’ metal flowers fashioned from musical instruments. Named after Reeves’ grandmother, it plays like a kind of manic calliope.
“He does all the metalwork in the French Quarter, and has a deep understanding of New Orleans, while Swoon is just so creative,” Bush says. “We try to do interesting pairings.”
Each house has a name, and a distinct personality. Chateau Poulet gets its moniker from the rotating metal chicken on the roof. Western Electric is a phone booth/vocal studio that broadcasts voices. Bowers Nest, nestled inside a mirror-filled hexagon, drips outside with metal chimes tuned to the musical scale.
“It takes a lot of skill sets” to create houses that sing, says Bush. Old screen doors screech (literally) when pulled, and fans turn smoothly to fuel a haunting kind of howl. For Airlift, the concept of “artist” is a broad one. Science and engineering factor as broadly as do aesthetic considerations.
“When we decided to do a new Music Box, we felt it had to be robust,” Bush says. “We didn’t want to be repetitive.”
She waves her hands behind a small structure, which transmits electronic signals to hanging rectangles of metal, causing them to reverberate across the space. “They sound like fairies,” she says with unjaded enthusiasm.
On a clear day last week, Taylor Lee Shepherd, who had a hand in much of the site’s technical as well as artistic improvisation, was vacuuming electronic parts, gummed up from all the recent rain. He’d had to empty the spit valves in a wall of old trombones, too. Half a dozen dogs lazed happily in the sun. One, Buttercup, was left abandoned and tied up to a nearby fence, and has been adopted by Airlift founders Delaney Martin and Shelpherd.
“It’s a great office,” says Bush.
Teams spent a couple of months just on concept, before ever firing up the first welding torch. Two houses were built in Shreveport, where Airlift sponsored artist internships, another in Atlanta. Though the architecture has a New Orleans vibe, something from each location was incorporated. Martin’s Shake House, for example, has a prototypical Shreveport overhead bulkhead.
The one constant in this whimsical village is salvage. Lots of it, from scrap wood to old TVs, rotary-dial phones to galvanized pipes. Plenty of deconstruction went into this construction.
“A lot of the material came from an abandoned golf course in Shreveport,” Martin says of SHake House. “The shakes on the roof were given to us by a guy who brought in these hand-hewn cedar shakes made by his grandfather. It’s amazing. There are all these little narratives woven into each house.”
Her house, Martin says, captures her love of puns. Thus her “clapping boards” literally can be moved and made to “clap.” “I saw this falling-down house and got it into my head that clapboards could be clapping boards.”
The village is open for wandering – and pushing and pulling various levers and gears for noisemaking – through May 10. Don’t be surprised if spaces are filled with curious young minds: Some 800 students from 15 area schools in first grade through high school will be inhabiting the village at various times this month.
“We do tours and workshops with the kids, everything from design lessons on what it takes to build them to the creative thought process behind them,” Bush explains. “With very young kids we do drawing workshops, and we have a writing group coming in from Press Street that will work with Cameron Shaw from Pelican Bomb. We try to tailor the session to each group.”
Artist talks each Sunday cater to a wider crowd. On Sunday, the topic will be wetlands, with environmental reporter Bob Marshall, journalist Moose Jackson, and artist and activist
Mike Stagg, Executive Director at Free Louisiana, Inc. A final Sunday talk on May 10 will feature most of the village’s builders, makers and artists.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of these houses that double as musical instruments is that professional musicians also can tap into their offerings. They come to rehearse, trying out each structure’s range and options, but concerts necessarily are part set list, part improv, part spontaneous inspiration. At a post-Jazz Fest show this weekend, members of Wilco showed up after their Accura Stage set to play pipes and chimes at Music Box.
On Wednesday, a benefit concert at Music Box will showcase the Preservation Hall Band and Cajun rockers Lost Bayou Ramblers. Most concerts start in one spot, but tend to ramble around the grounds. And the lights at night add a celestial quality to the surroundings.
Closing concerts on May 8 and 9 will feature artist/musician Arto Lindsay conducting the Roving Village Orchestra, whose members range from zydeco king Sunpie Barnes and North Side Skull and Gang drummer Zohar Israel to tuba player Job Gross and mad electronic musician Earl Scioneaux III.
Although this village will pull up its foundations on May 10, it won’t be the end of Music Box. Roving Villages: City Park is the first of a series of residencies that will see the kinetic, interactive structures alight in various places around town throughout the year. A new installation is planned in the fall in a vacant lot on O.C. Haley Boulevard, across the street from the Ashe Cultural Center.
Expect more creative collaboration.
“I’ve talked to the Montanas about re-imagining a Mardi Gras Indian suite into a house,” says Martin. “More and more, we’re interested in bridging different communities within New Orleans.”
Rare Sounds: A Benefit for New Orleans Airlift
Music Box: Roving Village is open Friday-Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. through May 10. For information about Sunday talks and final concerts, go to www.neworleansairlift.org.