You'll hear it first, and it comes into view through a dense green thicket and a few muddy patches of dirt. A wooden village seemingly built for fairy tale characters emerges from an island in New Orleans City Park. It looks familiar to visitors of the The Music Box shantytown on Piety Street, where a sprawling backyard of storybook houses — ripped from blueprints belonging to Peter Pan's Lost Boys — filled the neighborhood with the music made from inside them. The "houses" were built by artists, tinkerers and musicians and all were musical instruments in some way, from creaky floorboard pianos and gizmo-filled boxes to walls of plucked piano strings. That installation closed in 2012, and its next incarnation of new musical buildings opens in City Park.
Like the shantytown, which hosted musicians Thurston Moore, Andrew W.K., Quintron and dozens of others, The Music Box Roving Village: City Park will host concerts with the houses serving as the orchestra. Its opening performances are 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. April 3-4 with conductor William Parker, Quintron, Leyla McCalla, Rob Cambre, Marion Tortorich and Cooper-Moore. The site also will host pop-up performances throughout its City Park residency through May 10, including closing performances from Arto Lindsay.
"We do these concerts which in essence are experimental music concerts, but we sort of trick people into coming to them by making a wondrous world around it," says Delaney Martin, artist and co-founder of the arts organization New Orleans Airlift.
The City Park village includes "The Shake House," a lean, shotgun-inspired cottage created by Martin and Taylor Lee Shepherd. Inside, a synthesizer (the "rattlewoofer"), remade from a similar device at the Piety Street incarnation, is stationed in the center. Foot-pedaled switches on the floor control a large subwoofer built into the floor. The walls are like musical blocks — Martin runs her hand on one side and the boards clap along to her touch.
The bright, intricate nests made by bowerbirds inspired Ross Harmon and Frank Pahl's shack, surrounded with heavy chimes tuned to different scales. The inside is completely covered in mosaic mirrors.
Callie Curry (aka Swoon) collaborated with New Orleans blacksmith Darryl Reeves on a gazebo-like structure, detailed with lattice-like brass cuttings and Reeves' brass instruments twisted into the house's frame. A pneumatic switchboard in the center controls the horns, including two drippy trombones fitted with a device to pull their slides.
Andrew Schrock and Klaas Hubner's "Chateau Poulet" is a tall windmill-inspired silo topped with tubes and metal shaped into musical ceiling fans. Slowly pull a rope from the ornate pulley system inside the house and you'll hear the tubes catch air as they turn into resonating chambers bellowing slightly dissonant tones.
"We tried to make them more harmonic," Schrock says, smiling, "but we wanted to make them a little spooky."
When The Music Box closed in 2012, organizers had planned the next incarnation, Dithyrambalina, an ambitious, many-storied, completely musical house.
"Everyone liked the sonic, spatial qualities of [The Music Box] — you can move through it, everyone had a touch or hand in it," Martin says. "We very quickly realized to do it in a village-type situation instead of a house was a way to bring so many other ideas and hands and talent into the picture. We can go on and on with ideas about what we think musical architecture could be — working with builders, inventors, architects. ... We were worried a singular house may be a little oblique. It's only one thing. This allowed for more movement."
The U.S. Embassy had selected New Orleans Airlift to travel to Kiev, Ukraine in 2012 to build a Music Box-inspired project there, which then sparked the idea for Music Box Outposts around the world and closer to home — a recent residence in Shreveport gathered area artists to build works there (some of which have transformed into sites at the City Park village). The site in Shreveport continues to host concerts and will be home to more musical houses.
Martin says Airlift co-founder Jay Pennington (aka DJ Rusty Lazer) then asked, "What if we can go on the road with this?" — spawning the Roving Village series that takes the project to different neighborhoods throughout the city and elsewhere.
"Every time we go some place we want to engage with the community," Martin says. The site will not only host ambitious, avant-garde concerts (Shepherd is toying with amplifying and manipulating the sound of insects in the park) but also student groups and medicinal herb workshops from Maypop Community Herb Shop, among other programs.
"Here we are in this valuable space and it's wild and lovely," says Martin, adding that what the space sounds like still is purposefully unclear.
"We'll probably have only heard our instruments playing together for the first time the day before," she says. "It'll be sunset when people first arrive. We want them to feel like they've entered an enchanted world. They'll come in, find these musical houses, find their seats — they'll be all over the place — and we'll have a concert that we have no idea what it will sound like."