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by Emily Nathan
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New Orleans is so full of music that its very houses sing, or so says the Brooklyn-based street artist Swoon. The former Deitch Gallery artist celebrated for sending populated boats made of city garbage down the Hudson and crashing the 54th Venice Biennial by raft, has now brought her bohemian magic to dry land, collaborating with some 25 artists and musicians to build river refuse into a ramshackle musical village on the banks of the Mississippi.

Titled The Music Box and on view in New Orleans’ artsy Bywater district from Oct. 22-Dec. 10, 2011, the “sound laboratory” resembles a shantytown of interconnected, tool-shed-sized structures. Made from scavenged local materials, each shack houses an experimental instrument, from an organ staircase to a rocking-chair harp to a “voxmurum,” whose pre-programmed sound pedals jut out from wooden paneling and conjure the whispers of neighbors heard through the wall.

The Music Box village is enclosed in a brick courtyard behind a jagged wooden fence, and it sits on the edge of a small amphitheatre like a whimsical theatrical set. Its shanties are a paragon of the city’s shabby-eclectic, folk esthetic -- asymmetrical planks of “bargeboard,” dirty panes of glass, wood dappled in drips of paint and an array of delicious details, from a roof tiled in oyster shells to a spinning weathervane to a scalloped wooden overhang, like a gingerbread house’s trim. Beyond the trendy appeal of its vintage esthetic -- rusty metal pipes, twine-wrapped wood, piles of stone and yellowing piano keys -- its jumbled construction evokes the youthful delight we once took in makeshift versions of adult things: drinking cups fashioned from rose petals, or swords from sticks.

In fact, its materials were mostly gathered from the site of a recently collapsed, late-18th-century Creole cottage that has been acquired for repurposing by local arts organization New Orleans Airlift, which sponsored the project and invited Swoon to The Crescent City as an artist-in-residence. She conceives of The Music Box as the prelude to her larger vision: a permanent, three-story “interactive sound sculpture” called Dithyrambalina, which she has already designed for construction in the cottage’s original location. When completed, the musical house will serve the community as an alternative arts space, and, later, as Airlift’s headquarters.

In the meantime, the Box serves as an experimental platform for Swoon’s artists and musicians to develop the instrumentation they will eventually build into Dithyrambalina’s walls, ceilings and floorboards -- like its plumbing and electrical systems. When not in use, it is open to the exploration of the public every weekend through the winter, a fantasy playground for grownups.

Things kicked off on opening night, Oct. 22, 2011, with a live improvisational performance conducted by local noise hero Quintron, elegantly robed in a three-piece suit. As the clock struck 8:30 pm, he stepped into the light and raised his batons -- two double-sided paddles like on/off buttons, yellow for “go” and black for “stop.” The audience hushed, and for the next 30 minutes, his tall, lanky figure moved gracefully among the shacks, conducting his symphony of eight musicians and their musical dwellings with gestures of his paddles. 

The strange, mechanical composition raced and ebbed. Quintron drew his players to a steady buzz, then punctured it with short bursts of staccato. Tinkling ushered forth from beneath a quilted-lace bell the size of Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt; melancholy strings from the rocking-chair harp; a wheezing hiss from the pianist, who used valves to open and close the pressurized water pipes he had attached to the keys; a throbbing beat from a house on the right, whose resident danced atop drum pedals made from recycled sheet metal and installed in the floor.

The music’s literal -- and symbolic -- focal point resided in a central abode with large windows and an open door. There, a seated woman played tragic notes on a cello and held a stethoscope, hooked up to speakers, against her neck. Her live heartbeats were projected across the space; they pulsed in the wood, vibrated the glass, warmed the stone and surged beneath every layer of sound -- the rhythm that guides us all, as familiar as air.

According to Airlift co-founder and The Music Box curator Delaney Martin, Swoon herself has had a relatively “light hand” in the village’s actual production. And, Martin adds, it was Quintron who brought in most of the high-profile musicians -- including Andrew WK, Icelandic composer Skuli Sverrisson (a frequent collaborator with artist Laurie Anderson) and saxophonist Dickie Landry (who played with Phillip Glass) -- who are scheduled to make musical appearances in the upcoming weeks.

The Music Box is a breathtaking feat of DIY engineering, a collaborative revelation that seamlessly weaves architecture, sculpture, musical composition, folk art and installation into a living, breathing, “sound-making member” of the neighborhood. It is slated to host two more live performances with limited seating, and if opening night’s queue -- which snaked down the block and around the corner one hour in advance of doors -- was at all indicative of local interest, you’d better be sure to get there early.

Talking walls wait for no man.

“The Music Box,” Oct. 22, 2011-Dec. 10, 2012, 1031 Piety Street, New Orleans, LA, 70117.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email