House of Sound: A Look Back from the Music Box Family
"The weather was either hot or torrential. Piles of wood and debris were everywhere. Daily, we were bringing in found materials and going to look at free goods. I remember the excitement and confoundedness of trying to imagine that piece of land and my little corner of it becoming the Music Box" - Micah Learned
The musical art installation “Dithyrambalina” (or “Music Box”) started as a cardboard model of an ornate house, built by New York street artist Callie Curry, aka Swoon. Each room in the proposed 45 foot house would be a separate music instrument, so that a group of people could theoretically “play the house.” Dithyrambalina’s beta test – a series of separate intricate musical shacks made from the collapsed house of DJ Rusty Lazer – was brought to life by Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Airlift organization of New York and New Orleans artists and was open to the public for tours and performances from November 2011 until June 2012. The test will be over this month and the “shantytown musical laboratory” torn down.
During its short run, the Music Box hosted local and world-renowned musicians of every stripe: drummers Hamid Drake and Jim White (Dirty Three), traditional jazz singer Meschiya Lake, hip-hop artists Mannie Fresh and Nicky da B (who filmed a music video there with Diplo), noise artists Weasel Walter and Rat Bastard, guitarist Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (see interview pg. 22) and many more all graced the space to play the buildings with musicians they might not otherwise have met.
ANTIGRAVITY reached out to some of the project’s artists, musicians, architects, builders and facilitators to discuss memories of the year’s performances, what they learned from the beta test and what improvements might be made as the shantytown becomes a single musical house.
Theo Eliezer is the associate curator and project manager for Dithyrambalina.
What is your strongest memory of the Music Box experience?
The night of the after-party for Swoon’s NOMA show Thalassa last Spring, I had just met Callie and had been working with Delaney a month. Towards the end of that party someone grabbed me and said we were all going to have a toast in the Dithyrambalina model. We somehow squeezed ten full-sized adults into openings approximately 1 foot wide and 2 feet tall. We sat in a circle in the miniature house together, twinkling lights coming through the tiny doors and windows. And I became aware of how surreal and fantastical this project was going to be.
Of all the dozens of people who worked on the project, who really blew your mind?
Serra Victoria Bothwell Fells built her two beautiful shanty houses during non-stop rain storms. Eliza Zeitlin, our first settler, had superhuman strength, endurance and compassion. Benjamin Mortimer insisted that art should be dangerous. And Micah Learned spent a week blow-torching everything in sight and somehow didn’t burn down his shanty house (or anyone else’s).
Micah Learned co-designed, built and burned the Glass House, a sort of cocoon tambourine. Elizabeth Shannon, Angeliska Polachek, Colin McIntyre and Creative Director Delaney Martin collaborated to make the Glass House the tin-rattling, tintinnabulating beauty you see today.
What inspired the Glass House?
Angel showed us some sketches of her designs for the Tintinnabulation Station (the hanging, illuminated hoop skirt bell at the center of the Glass House), and we spoke of those recently killed in a warehouse fire. Angel’s piece deserved to be seen from outside as well as from within and protection from the elements was a must. The glass octagon shape soon followed. The plywood from the floor over the mud pit became the frame and sub-floor of the house. And many of the beat-up windows that had adorned the Thallassa after-party became the walls of the Glass House. Candles eventually became part of the piece as well, as we sought to pay homage to those who’d passed in the warehouse fire.
What is your strongest memory of the experience?
The very early days of construction. It was just us builders on site then; the tinkerers hadn’t come. Eliza Zeitlin was getting the base of the Riverhouse built and Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels was still working on the Heartbeat House. Theo was mapping out where the various structures would go. This was in late July or early August of last year and most of the other artists wouldn’t come until September. Day after day it rained. The weather was either hot or torrential. Piles of wood and debris were everywhere. Daily, we were bringing in found materials and going to look at free goods. I remember the excitement and confoundedness of trying to imagine that piece of land and my little corner of it becoming the Music Box.
Niky Da B is a 22-year-old bounce-esque rapper and dancer who collaborated at the Music Box in November 2011 with New Orleans producer and DJ Mannie Fresh, drummer Hamid Drake and others. He went on to record a song and video outside of the site with Diplo. The video, “Express Yourself,” featuring the outside of the Music Box decorated in Swoon’s wheat paste drawings, can now be seen on MTV.
So how did a rapper fit into the context of the Music Box?
I was a vocalist. I was just hitting all of the crazy shit that I say like the bopbiddybopbiddybopbop and all of that when I rap. That was me. I was on the mic, standing on the bridge that connects to the Voxmurum that Taylor Shepard made, that Mannie Fresh was operating. It’s a wall of pedals that each sample four seconds of anything you say. Mannie Fresh had my vocals; and his vocals he was punching in and making whatever beats with that while I was going live over top of it.
As a New Orleans rapper, it must have been exciting to work with Mannie Fresh.
I already kinda knew how he was. He’s a big jokester, so he made the whole experience really, really fun. We practiced together, too. He came early to check it out and see what he was going to be doing. Him and me arrived at the same time. It was cool!
How did the song and video with Diplo come about?
Diplo came to one of my shows at the Republic. He came down here to work with Freedia but she was on tour. So after my performance he said he wanted to work with me. We recorded the song in November at Rusty Lazer’s house. First, since it’s right in Rusty’s back yard, we went to the Music Box and ran around trying everything out. He liked the samples Mannie Fresh had left in the Voxmurum. That was Diplo’s favorite. Then we recorded. I knew that he was going to stick with the “express yourself, release and go / attack the flow, and work it low,” but I gave him a lot of vocals. Then in January we shot the video. It has done wonders for my career! I am leaving for Australia to go perform with Rusty Lazer.
Jayme Kalal (aka Microshards) built the Water Organ, which filters keyboard tones through water, controlled by the musician by various spigots. Kalal is one of the few who also built the building that houses his sound experiment. He will participate in the house’s next phase.
What is the next step for you and your collaborators?
We are having a meeting to discuss the next steps in a week. We all have to modify what we’re doing to fit the house, so there will be a lot of discussions. I am dealing with this Water Organ, and the only water is in the bathroom. Because of that weird restriction, I have to look at the building and think about opening a wall to the bathroom. The key is being flexible about the layout. There’s no set-in-concrete concept.
What modifications might you make?
As a thing that totally just came out of my brain and I took a stab at it, it works great. It just sounds really pleasant because it’s being shaped by a physical thing – water – that’s real and we can connect with. This time I do get to build an auto-refill thing: my only problem was the water evaporates, so I have to design some kind of sensor that goes into the water to let little drips out. Something like the machines they use to feed animals. I initially selected the keyboard because it’s a very pure sound that you can hear it being shaped, but I want to reconfigure it so a voice could go through the water. I’d also like to have more durable speakers; I had some ghost in the machine where all of my speakers blew out simultaneously, so all the voice coils got fried.
Michael Glenboski is the Music Box’s consulting architect and project advisor with ten years experience in the New York City art and architecture worlds.
What is your strongest memory of this entire experience?
Seeing kids turn into musicians and adults and parents into kids. Also, just how simple most of the ideas and sounds are and how in sync they are with New Orleans. The shantytown could not work in many other places. Our cityscape and housing stock leads directly to it.
What factors do you feel should be taken into consideration as the project goes forth and turns into a single house?
Just a distinction between the two phases of the project and an emphasis on continuing to let the design turn into a world-class facility for experimental music, education and a new landmark destination for New Orleans in our neighborhood.
James Singleton, a versatile and legendary improvisation-based New Orleans bassist, played once at the Music Box with Mannie Fresh, Hamid Drake, Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indian Theris Valdery and others.
What worked for you at the performance and what did not?
I had a ball playing and I felt well-connected to Hamid Drake because he was close to me. I was thrilled to be part of an event that brought such disparate types together. And from what I heard, the people who witnessed the performance thought it was great too. But for me, it was hard to have any clear idea what was happening because I was only hearing myself and the drummer. I was playing double bass with effects; I brought my own gear but I also played that big banjo bass (Bathtub Bass by Ross Harmon) which I thought was more of a visual effect than actually a whole lot sonically. Overall though, I thought it was one of those rare instances where the audience had a clearer picture of what happened than I did.
Quintron built the Singing House, a weather-controlled drone synth. He also helped to curate the musicians and scored and conducted all the live performances with drama, flare and fun visual cues.
What is your strongest memory of the experience?
Putting a lightning detector on the roof right next to a huge hornet’s nest with a home-made bee keeper’s suit on.
Who on the project were you most impressed by?
Every single person did their thing and the fact that it even worked so well blew my mind. My friendship with Delaney has to be the greatest gift that I will walk away with. And what’s up with the genius who built the river shack bridge structure [Eliza Zeitlin]?
How will you do things differently moving forward?
I will improve my rain detectors and just tighten up the electronics and probably contribute some of the technology I developed into other more “house playable” instruments, like a light switch drum machine.
What factors do you feel the creators should take into consideration as the project turns into a single house?
My impression is that there are serious architects at work on this so that’s good. I think if they want to continue the style of performance we developed, there are a lot of “seeing and hearing each other” concerns to be addressed. But the house does not need to be a recreation of what we have already done.
Delaney Martin is the creative director and curator of the Music Box and also creator of the Rattlewoofer, a car sub-woofer speaker that rattles the glass and tin shack it shares with the Tinntabulation Station.
What part did you play in the Music Box experiment?
I dreamt up the idea to build a musical shantytown as a laboratory for musical architecture. I then reached out to friends and strangers with an invitation to become settlers in this strange village. I guess I acted as the Mayor of the town. If we’d been making a film I would have been the director. Along with Theo Eliezer, I also acted as a producer, beginning with fundraising and ending with organizing details of our performances.
You’ve been recording a lot of these performances. Where will the recordings end up?
To make our proof of concept be even stronger, the spring season was mainly about getting recordings by people… Our concerts with Quintron have been magical but they’ve been 45 minutes or 30 minutes – a hard length to listen to, so now we’re kind of trying to get some tracks. Black Dice was here Monday morning. They recorded for maybe an hour and had moments that were great and other moments where they were just figuring things out, so we told them, “We can edit that down maybe,” and they said, “Oh yeah. Make it three minutes.” [laughs]. What Thurston and Rob did was long but they’ve given us permission to edit it down. Their [public performance] will be just a straight live recording, but the stuff they recorded [in private] we’re going to mess around with, then run it by them. We’ll probably just post a lot of these recordings on our website.
I noticed Thurston Moore tackled some instruments that not many of the other visiting artists had really braved.
(New York composer) Taylor Kuffner made the Gamalatron with however many buttons and each button plays a song. You can put it in player piano mode or you can put it in user mode where you can play each thing individually. It’s the showpiece of the town in a way, by day, because it’s really active. But in other ways it’s one of the weaker links; it has kind of a restrictive element. And I told Thurston Moore that [before his show]: it never sounds as rich as when it’s in player piano mode with all the robots playing a bunch of things at once. Thurston was like, “Really. I’m gonna tackle this thing.” And he really managed to play it differently than everybody else. Thurston blew it out of the water. It was kind of stunning.