It takes a village: More than 80 artists helped construct the 10,000-square-foot Music Box Village. (©Josh Brasted)
Equal parts sculpture garden, musical venue and avant-garde architecture experiment, the Music Box Village is a miniature town made of one-of-a-kind structures that can be played like instruments.
You’ll find the Music Box Village on the edge of the Bywater neighborhood, where N. Rampart Street dead-ends at the Industrial Canal. From outside, it doesn’t look like much: crumbling concrete barriers, a stretch of gravel that’s more a collection of potholes than a parking lot, a warehouse behind a kudzu-covered chain-link fence. But behind the wall of corrugated metal and repurposed ironwork, you’ll discover one of New Orleans’ most unique hidden treasures.
A raised one-room hut fashioned from reclaimed wood, sheet metal and pots and pans is like a treehouse drum set. A canopy covered in scraps of lace and old keys is a rope swing/bell hybrid. In an airy two-story pagoda with window panes for walls, you can play the creaky floorboards as you would piano keys, and the sliding doors’ tracks are rigged and amplified to function like an electric guitar string. Chimes hang from the metal roof of the Bower’s Nest building, and the Shake House’s walls are salvaged shutters that clash like symbols.
During public hours the village is a sonic playground, with kids and adults making friends and music together as they explore the grounds and houses. And that’s just what the Music Box Village’s creators had in mind. “It’s a platform for collaboration between artists from New Orleans and the outside world,” said Jay Pennington, a Bounce DJ and producer better known by his stage name, Rusty Lazer.
It makes sense that collaboration would be central to the Village, the newest evolution of a post-Katrina project by New Orleans Airlift (a nonprofit artist-driven initiative cofounded by Pennington and multimedia installation artist Delaney Martin). The original idea was to turn a blighted Creole cottage into a functioning music box. When the 250-year-old structure unexpectedly collapsed, the materials were salvaged and remade into smaller structures.
When “Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Library” proved so popular that it outgrew its home, Martin and Pennington took the aural architecture on the road, building connections with artists from Atlanta to Kiev, and hosting a diverse array of artists—including an Estonian performance troupe and Siberia’s top break dancer—in New Orleans. There have been collaborations with more mainstream artists too: Solange Knowles, Wilco, Cash Money Records' Mannie Fresh and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are just a handful of musicians who performed during a six-week Music Box installation in New Orleans City Park in 2015.
Collaboration is also key to the Music Box Village’s musical houses, each of which are made by at least two members of a diverse network of local, national and international artists, tinkerers and innovators. Every musical house is the product of partnership.
Sculptural artists Andrew Schronk of New Orleans and Klaas Hubner from Berlin had never met before Airlift asked them to build a Village house together. Their Chateau Poulet, or “chicken house,” looks like a post-apocalyptic re-imagining of Rapunzel’s tower. Partially concealed by slats of reclaimed wood is a network of fan blades and PVC tubing. Pull the hanging ropes to control the speed of the fans, and you make sounds that are weird and wondrous, harmonious and haunting.
The structures are designed so that even the most amateur visitors can make music with them, but it’s hard to appreciate just how genius they are until you see skilled musicians play them. Luckily, that’s not hard to do. Less than six months since its grand opening, the Village has already hosted an array of performers, including Norah Jones, indie favorites Gogol Bordello and OneBeat, the U.S. Department of State’s international orchestra program.
The Village is also a great place to see local musicians like “Queen of Bounce” Big Freedia, the Grammy-nominated Cajun band the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Tank and the Bangas (winners of NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Concert), swamp-pop legend Quintron—even the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. With such varied programming, the Village’s schedule changes often, so be sure to check its website for information on hours and performances.
No matter what’s going on there, one thing is for certain: Your visit to the Music Box Village will be a—if not the—highlight of your trip to New Orleans.