At the Music Box Village, the houses come to life: the walls are xylophones, the windows become drums and the rooftops whistle in E major. This quirky village of musical shacks has been nestled in the New Orleans Bywater neighborhood since last October, hosting performances by about fifteen musicians unique to their genre. Here, the houses themselves are the instruments!
The Music Box Village is a child’s dream come true. An artistic installation, concert venue, playground and amusement park all wrapped up in one, the Music Box Village could only come about in a place as musical and mystical as New Orleans.
The story begins in 2005. Returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, artists Jay Pennington and Delaney Martin noticed the trouble local musicians were having to make a living from their art. So they decided to create New Orleans Airlift, an organization that aims to help New Orleans musicians play around the world and meet other artists from all over. The Music Box Project was conceived a few years later in 2009, when Jay Pennington decided to give new life to a dilapidated house he owned. What if, he wondered, the house itself was a musical instrument that artists could play? Seven years later, this “Music Box” has traveled as far as Europe and many artists have had the opportunity to play these musical houses, including local artists like Big Freedia, as well as big names like Arto Lindsay, Thurston Moore and Wilco. Since October, these little houses have found a permanent place to call home in the heart of the Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans.
Here’s a look back on seven years of musical and architectural experiments with Jay Pennington, aka Rusty Lazer.
How was the Music Box project born?
In 2009, the house next door to mine, which I also owned, was falling down. It was a very special house to people since it was so old and had so much character. People in the neighborhood didn’t want to see it go even though it wasn’t safe anymore. So I, Delaney, the visual artist Swoon, and Taylor Lee Shepherd, who is also a lead on the Music Box project, talked a lot about what we could do with this house that would be meaningful to people. We finally decided it would be a good idea to transform it into a musical house. In New Orleans, music and architecture go so well together, so it made sense that the structure itself would be musical. Delaney had a great idea: instead of building a musical house from scratch, we should take the materials from the old house and build a prototype. We realized that we would have to build new instruments, instruments based in architecture. We contacted a bunch of artists and builders that we love, put together about 25 people and built shacks with the wood and the raw material saved from the house that had been torn down. We built a tiny village of eight musical structures.
How did the residents react?
We had our first shows in 2011 organized with the help of Quintron, a very well-known local artist for experimentations and instrument building himself, and they were extremely well attended. We thought a hundred people would come and it was more like a thousand every time! We were way beyond capacity. We had well-known musicians playing and asked them to play with musicians from New Orleans. The idea was to have 13 to 15 musicians play while conducted by a single person. The concerts were all very different. In 2013, we ended that project because we realized that the houses were not structurally stable since they were made from an old house. So we took all the houses down and planned the next project.
How did the Music Box project find a permanent home?
We decided that the next step was to build a version of the musical houses that was structurally sound and transportable so we could put them on a truck and move them around. We built a new version that we called the Roving Village and we did performances in City Park in 2015, a huge urban park located in New Orleans. We had a new series of concerts mixing and matching musicians to play with the musical houses. That worked out really well. We also did it in other cities as well, such as Kiev, Ukraine, Shreveport, Louisiana and in Tampa Bay, Florida.
This year we were able to purchase a building in the Upper Ninth Ward in the Bywater neighborhood. We bought the building in April and we opened it in October. We’ve got a giant fabrication facility and a forested tree-covered space so now we have a permanent home for our musical houses. We have about eleven structures, including the ones we brought back from constructions made in other cities. Next year, we’ll take the project to other cities and continue to bring materials back to keep on improving houses and building new ones.
We organize concerts, and people can come during the opening hours to play the houses by themselves. So it’s part playground, part amusement park, part fine art installation, part concert venue. We opened the season with a concert featuring musicians as part of this program called OneBeat, a program founded to encourage artists from other countries to come to America, which had 30 musicians from 13 different countries around the world. It was very unique.
What was the public’s reaction in New Orleans?
Most people react with childlike enthusiasm, and younger and older people alike seem to treat it as an equal space. These houses are invented instruments, so no one is better than anyone else at playing them. You can play with no musical talent, and I think it puts everyone on an even playing field and people love that. When you see a famous musician playing in one house, he is not necessarily better than anyone else at it. Even for people who don’t understand the music or don’t find experimental music appealing, there’s a sort of visual feast you can enjoy by simply watching the music being made. It has a little something for everybody.
Do you think that this project could give experimental music a more accessible, less elitist image?
We want to create collaborations that are not daunting. We want people to enjoy the experience of experimental music, not be turned off by it. That’s why we keep the performances relatively short (around thirty or forty minutes). There’s a saying, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” As long as we include musicians people are familiar and comfortable with, they tend to give us a lot more room to do experimental stuff. We don’t just pick well-known experimental musicians to play here. We invite people that come from pop, rap or music you wouldn’t even consider experimental… We try to make it very friendly and not something that’s too high-minded, too “fine art.”
What do you have in mind for the Music Box Village’s future?
When I watch children playing and adults playing with them, it looks like a really awesome playground to me. It’s different than going to the playground where you get on your phone and talk to somebody else while your kid is playing… For me, it represents what I hope could be the future of playgrounds, environments in which we interact with each other.
There’s something for everyone in the Music Box project. Photography students come and spend the day taking photos. We’ve got theatre students coming to talk about theatrical design. We have musicians. What I would like to see going forward is a youth-oriented composer program where we compose with young people and have them grow into this. In five or ten years, they’d have their own musical language in the space and they would have mastered these instruments in their own way and helped us invent new ones and repair the old ones. In New Orleans, we’ve really made a big shift away for music education, technology and educational components since Katrina. It really is a sad thing. We just try to fill that gap for kids. I hope that those kids will come and get excited, enjoy it and that they’ll come with their own kids later so that the idea grows organically. We’ll see how that goes!
Photo: Josh Brasted
Article translated by Andrea Perdue