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NEW ORLEANS — Towering pecans and live oaks shade a far corner of New Orleans’s Bywater neighborhood which will soon be the permanent home of the Music Box Village, an installation of musical architecture organized by the New Orleans Airlift nonprofit. Just over an adjoining ridge, rolling with bright green grass, you can look over the Industrial Canal and the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, and across to the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the epicenters of the catastrophic flooding following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Salvage and collaboration are at the core of the Music Box, an ongoing project since 2011, with its shambling structures played with creaking floorboards, snapping shutters that accompany a droning subwoofer, whirring blades pulled by ropes, or other unexpected tactile interactions. To support its new village-style installation, New Orleans Airlift is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, with rewards including yearlong memberships to visit the sonic artworks at the site.
“It has a lot of entry points, with music, community building, architecture; there’s so many ways this project has doorways for you,” Delaney Martin, artistic director and cofounder of New Orleans Airlift, told Hyperallergic on a recent visit to their new space. Along with the small forest, New Orleans Airlift acquired a huge former metal fabrication workshop, where the Music Box houses are now being tuned for a planned October opening. Pieces of lacy metal from “Maisonette Shingra” by Caledonia Curry, aka Swoon, a Music Box cofounder, and local metalworker Darryl Reeves, await reassembly near “The Pitchbow House” by artists Alyssa Dennis and Ranjit Bhatnagar, which is played by rocking back and forth on its weather-worn wooden floorboards.
While most houses in the Music Box Village will be from previous iterations, such as last year’s in New Orleans’s City Park or further afield like pop-ups in Kiev, Tampa Bay, and Shreveport, between three and four of them will be totally new. Often artists both local and international are working on a single structure, such as the “Chateau Poulet” that looks a bit like a witch hat and contains fans activated by ropes that change their tones — it is a collaboration between New Orleans artist Andrew Schrock and Berlin-based artist Klaas Hübner.
Even on a quiet Monday afternoon when the June humidity seemed to mute the city slightly, and subdued the small herd of friendly dogs cared for by New Orleans Airlift, there was an energetic spirit of collective visions coming together in these structures of recycled material, a focus which goes back to the initial installation which incorporated pipes of an organ lost to Katrina and a collapsed Creole cottage.
“There’s an empowerment in the accessibility of the whole project,” said Martin. Surrounded by a sculptural fence, the musical houses in the Music Box Village will be open to experimentation by visitors during the day, while at night they’ll host concerts with professional musicians. “You’ll enter the forest and it’s largely greened over, and you feel like you’re in a magical space,” she added.
This isn’t just the first permanent home for the Music Box, it’s also the first home for New Orleans Airlift, which specializes in nomadic experiences that connect different communities all around the city. In addition to the Music Box, plans include hosting the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra on the Industrial Canal for a concert that can be heard on both sides of the water, whether Bywater or Lower Ninth Ward.
“The Music Box has become our signature flagship piece,” Martin said. “We’re going to be able to sustain ourselves through this.” She said that they pay all of their artists, and having the Music Box as a destination for locals and tourists will support that mission.
Right now, the bits and pieces of the structures appear quite static, but cofounding sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd demonstrated (as shown in the two video clips below, the first being “The Pitchbow House” sounding floorboards and the second the “Shake House” by Martin and Shepherd) how they come to jittering life through movement. “A lot of sound art is passive, and ours needs the human touch,” Martin said.
The metal fabrication building is still covered with lazy graffiti tags, the trees still in need of arborist attention, the ground awaits its flood-resistant infrastructure, and the parking lot feels like the desolate end of Rampart Street, but experiencing these moments of the houses coming alive shows the engaging potential of the project. And walking down from viewing the nearby levee in the canal, which is still a haunting reminder of loss, the lush forest is awaiting its new musical architecture lodgers below, a place that can be an unconventional community gathering spot where everyone is welcome to join in a collaborative cacophony.
The Music Box Village from New Orleans Airlift is fundraising on Kickstarter through July 6.