New Orleans Airlift—a collaboration of musicians, artists, event planners, and everything in between—launched a Kickstarter on June 7 to help with funding towards a permanent home for their Music Box installation. The Music Box was brought to life in 2011 by artists Delaney Martin (pictured top right), Taylor Shepherd, Callie Curry (SWOON) and Jay Pennington (Rusty Lazer, pictured bottom right) who worked together to plunk down their unique music structures in New Orleans’ City Park, Georgia Tech, Tampa Bay, and Shreveport. They featured a truly unique twist on the concept of live music with performances by Thurston Moore, Wilco, Solange Knowles, Andrew W K, Mannie Fresh, Lost Bayou Ramblers, and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, among others. Although hard to describe unless you’re standing in front of it, The Music Box Village, as its permanent home in the Bywater is now being called, is an assortment of medium-to-large scale structures, decked out in a wide variety of themes or “vibes” that are literally played in, or upon—hence the name “music box.” Those visiting the space or performing in it will momentarily inhabit each structure to pull on levers, open and close intricate doors and windows, and bang on found percussion. We visited Delaney Martin and Jay Pennington at the site of The Music Box Village to learn more about what went into securing the permanent location, getting it organized, and what we can expect once it’s fully up and running this fall.
Can you guys give a bit of backstory on how The Music Box started?
Delaney Martin: Jay had a falling-down Creole cottage in his yard that needed to have something happen with it, or the city was going to start charging him $500 a day. We had begun New Orleans Airlift as sort of an artist exchange collaborative program, and he’d recently met Swoon at an Art Basel thing in Switzerland, and they hit it off. So we were like “Why don’t we invite her down?” which we did, and started to talk about ideas. Jay was talking about making an installation out of the structure with a stage for performance, and just saving the front of the house, but then the house fell down while trying to save it. Out of this fallen-down house came the freedom to actually rebuild from scratch where instead of being like “Oh it’s a stage, it’s a house, it’s a stage in a house,” we arrived at “No, we’re playing the house.” It’s not that we’re in the house… we’re playing it. The house becomes the instrument. And we came up with the name The Music Box as kind of a placeholder, but then it stuck. And we decided to make it a village of houses instead of just one house, because a single house is still along the lines of just being a stage, but a bunch of houses opens things up not only on a collaboration level, but sonically.
What was involved in actually locating this space in the Bywater that would eventually become The Music Box Village?
Jay Pennington: We went from the Music Box that we built in our yard to experimenting with it in other cities. We learned a lot about mobility and making things structurally sound. The first thing we did in the yard wasn’t anything like that at all. That was kind of a mid-point in the permanence, learning how to make these things really solid. We were going back and forth on a couple different ideas for locations but then I met with the owner of the Metfab metal shop, on Rampart by the Industrial Canal in the Bywater, and he was looking to retire and sold it to us, equipment and all. Getting this actual property we’re in now was, for me, about further experimentation. We can make more of these houses now over time, and change them out, and make them different.
You had mentioned in a previous conversation about having a wishlist of artists who you’d love to see perform here. Are you able to name a couple?
JP: I mean, you could start with Björk and work your way down. Mark Mothersbaugh would be awesome. Brian Eno would be awesome. You know, all of the people who are creating music on the verges. There’s lots of people. We’d love to do something with David Byrne.
DM: Yeah, I’d say along the lines of Brian Eno collaborating with a gospel church from the Lower 9th ward. That’s where we’re headed and that’s where The Music Box has always been successful, bringing together unlikely collaborators to work on something that’s larger than themselves.
In what ways do you think this new approach to live musical performance will affect the local music community?
JP: I have no idea. I don’t know that it necessarily will. I think it’s going to just be a specific thing that people experience in a specific way.
DM: I think we’ll create a hub for experimentation. And I think providing a place that fosters that in a community that’s so rich in culture and collaboration will open up a lot of other possibilities. And on another level I’m really excited about the possibilities for invention. Down the line we’ll be offering educational workshops where kids can come and develop a whole new way to make and experience music and performance and performance structures.
As far as the community here goes, there’s an uneasy—and growing—divide between the haves and the have-nots. What do you think the ambition put towards this project speaks towards the dos and the do-nots?
DM: It’s funny you should say that, because that’s a quality I’ve known New Orleans to have in terms of maybe lacking a bit of ambition, although I think that’s changing. What I’ve seen happening with this project is that people are reaching a little bit farther, like “Wow, this is really big, and I can be part of it.” I’ve seen it in lots of people. And not to be at all condescending but that’s one of the main reasons we started New Orleans Airlift in the first place; because we think so many people here are so talented and we want everyone to reach a little bit higher, because we see the capacity for ambition that hasn’t always been the defining characteristic of New Orleans.
JP: Also, I think we all applaud those people who choose not to be ambitious. I myself have made that choice at points in my life—to focus on other points of my life that don’t involve outward success or outward challenges. I personally moved here to lay around and read. I thought not doing things felt wonderful and I enjoyed that for many years. Now, post-Katrina, it felt better to do something. Maybe in ten years we won’t feel this way about what we’re doing right now, but for now we’re just trying to sustain the artists who move through our orbit to keep them going and making art.
The Music Box Village plans to hold a grand opening in October 2016. For more info, go to neworleansairlift.org