NEW ORLEANS — At the Music Box Village in New Orleans, melodies form from the clatter of a drum set made from pots and pans, the patter of dripping from a water tower, and the ring of chimes swinging from a house’s awning. The village’s buildings are instruments, ranging from an elegant metalwork structure created by Swoon and Darryl Reeves that has blaring horns activated by levers to Klass Hübner and Andrew Schrock’s “Chateau Poulet,” where pulled ropes whir sonic fans into an eerie hum. Launched by the nonprofit New Orleans Airlift in 2011 as a roving project, which has journeyed as far as Kiev and as near as New Orleans’s City Park, the village now has its first permanent home in a wooded area at the edge of the Bywater neighborhood.
I visited last year in June and September, before the official opening in October, so on a warm Saturday last month, I was eager to check it out during public hours. While the Music Box Village regularly hosts concerts, with recent performances by Nels Cline of Wilco, Solange Knowles, Gogol Bordello, Quintron, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Thurston Moore, and Will Oldham, during public hours anyone can stop by and explore. An available “Field Guide to the Musical Architecture” offers hints for each of the 11 current interactive sculptures. For example, “pick up the phone, throw your voice” is the direction for Matthew Ostrowski and Nina Nichols’s “Western Electric 2,” which broadcasts your distorted voice from a telephone booth. For the most part, though, you’re left to figure out how to play each house through experimentation.
During my visit last June, when the Music Box’s future home was an empty grove of pecans and live oaks next to a former metal fabrication workshop, Delaney Martin, artistic director and cofounder of New Orleans Airlift, told me, “There’s an empowerment in the accessibility of the whole project.” She added that “a lot of sound art is passive, and ours needs the human touch.”
The architectural instruments are great levelers; even professional musicians may be perplexed upon approaching something like Alyssa Dennis and Ranjit Bhatnagar’s “PitchBo House,” which reveals its percussive sounds through sliding doors and creaking floorboards. I play the flute (and can coax a basic tune from a guitar or piano). Figuring out that the windowsills of George Long, Justin Rabideau, and Mars Brown’s “Resonant Memory” could be hit with drumsticks, and its chandelier of metal duck heads played by pressing a series of doorbells, took me back to the joy of finding the right keys to press, the embouchure to form, to create music.
The houses at the Music Box Village are not made of anything precious, just salvaged wood, found objects, and cleverly incorporated synthesizers and subwoofers. In its first temporary iteration, the project involved a collapsing Creole cottage brought to life by inventive artists working in a post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Reuse, collaboration between artists and visitors, and an interaction with this part of the city encourage a community harmony.
The modulated horns of Devon Brady and LiveWork Collective’s “Syphonium” water tower were inspired by the whistles of boats passing on the adjacent Industrial Canal and trains rolling by on the tracks. From a balcony positioned right below the tree canopy, you can listen to those city sounds mix with the ringing of keys and bells suspended from lace in Angeliska Polacheck’s “Tintinnabulation Station” or the rippling of chimes encircling Ross Harmon’s “Bower’s Nest.” When kids are enthusiastically beating on Carl Joe Williams and Luther Gray’s “Inter-relational Messages and Patterns” barrel drums and the train is roaring by, it’s not exactly melodious music. But it is music with a powerful sense of place.
The Music Box Village is located at 4557 North Rampart Street, Bywater, New Orleans.