The Music Box is a quixotic collaboration involving visual artists, musicians, performers, and fabricators that emerged out of the rubble of a historic New Orleans shotgun style house after Hurricane Katrina. Rather than reconstructing the storm-ravished building, the owners decided to convert it into what artist/collaborator “Swoon” calls “playable installations.” Then they invited the public to come over—to beat on the “Samurai noise floor” and play with hanging bells and wind chimes in whatever ways the hurricane recovery spirits moved them. The public accepted with joy and delight.
Architecture and music have almost always been soul mates. As Goethe famously said: “Music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music.” For more than 3,000 years, the allure of musical harmonies was at the creative edge of architectural design. The process of integrating these two disciplines continues today and can only happen through the close collaboration of designers, mathematicians, musicians and fabricators.
This kind of collaboration lies at the heart of the most recent iteration of New Orleans Airlift’s playable installation called The Music Box Village. The project was created by founders, Delaney Martin, Taylor Lee Shepherd, Caliedonia Curry (Swoon) and Jay Pennington on a site adjacent to the Industrial Canal in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. The result is a fantastical village, cloistered within a walled garden, where folks are allowed to get lost, as Martin explains, “like in the bazaars of Morocco. ” The village contains twelve “musical houses,” that have been designed and constructed by more than 85 artists, along with a cadre of about 300 musicians. The sounds of nearby riverboats and train whistles also add to the ambiance of the place.
In early November, the village celebrated its debut with a choreographed production of “L’Union Creole,” an Afro-Caribbean rendition of what Swoon calls “musical architecture.” Food vendors were added to encourage people to linger. On weekdays, busloads of public school kids and other visitors descend on the village during public hours, converting its collection of noise floors, bells and clanking chimes into a cacophony of joyful sounds. It’s this self-effacing and transitory feeling that is most endearing, partially because it celebrates the loose and collaborative spirit of Jazz that is so deeply embedded in this city, and makes the process of art-making a shared activity. “It’s like a village that will grow with time and the community will grow with it,” Martin says. “We want to draw kids into the project and have them own it.”
In the modern age, ideas about we-centered natural and communal principles are often overshadowed by the temptations of a me-centered drive for personal recognition and technological prowess. New Orleans Airlift’s work is a testament to something else: collective genius and co-design. “It’s meant to be a framework in which artists can participate and flourish together, like baking soda and vinegar,” Martin says.
True to form, when I called Martin for an interview, she immediately arranged a meeting with five of her collaborators. The discussion wasn’t about either music or architecture, but more about “both-and” and “all of the above.” In this fundamental shift of design thinking, the creative process becomes not only an act of will, but an act of love and kindness.
From its quirky beginnings on Piety Street, to its current home in the Music Box Village on North Rampart Street, New Orleans Airlift has also expanded to create more fantastical and participatory architectural, visual and musical experiments in Tampa, Florida; Shreveport, Louisiana; and even in Kiev, Russia, where a combination of techno and classical music took root in an old arsenal.
AIrlift is now in the process of organizing, with the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, a performance of “New Water Music,” after Handel’s “Water Music,” led by the Guggenheim award winning conductor Yotam Haber, on a barge in Lake Pontchartrain. Included will be the entire Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, 25 oyster and shrimp boats, outfitted in local cultural regalia, and about 100 New Orleans musicians. The goal is to call attention to the effects of climate change on local conditions, such as sea level rise and land subsidence in south Louisiana (the most severe in the world), and to the people who will be impacted by these events.
Images courtesy of New Orleans Airlift; photos by Josh Brasted.