In 2011, a group of New Orleans artists built structures that also were musical instruments on a vacant lot on Piety Street, a project called the Music Box. The electronic artist known simply as Quintron contributed a prototype of an instrument he now calls the Weather Warlock — a synthesizer that converts weather into sound. In a mix with shaken percussion tents, treehouse samplers and a piano fort, his subtle instrument was sometimes lost.
Now, the Weather Warlock can be experienced in all its droning beauty, thanks to WeatherForTheBlind.org, a website that streams the synthesizer’s output 24 hours a day.
“To build a weather-controlled synthesizer has been a goal of mine for a long time,” Quintron said.
His signature invention is the Drum Buddy, a light-activated drum machine, and he considered using heat, precipitation and the wind as sound triggers to be the natural next step.
When health issues forced him to take some time off from performing with his wife, Miss Pussycat, he used the time to build the prototype.
“I’m a low-rent guy,” he said, and that shows in his creations. The Weather Warlock is not visually prepossessing, made largely out of PVC pipe, but that’s part of Quintron’s aesthetic. His rock ’n’ roll is often sweaty, two-chord garage music played on keyboards and synthesizers that he modified or made. They all look jerry-rigged at first, but there is a ragged efficiency to his designs.
He quickly reprograms the Drum Buddy by swapping out one used coffee can for another, each with holes strategically punched in them so that the light bulb at the center of the machine is read by light sensors at different intervals.
It’s a practical solution, much like using PVC for an object that’s going to have to withstand New Orleans’ weather.
“If you don’t have access to 3-D printers, Home Depot’s where it’s at,” he said.
Quintron got a chance to refine the Weather Warlock when he was offered a fellowship at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Florida. Since he hadn’t applied for it, Quintron thought the email informing him he had been accepted was a scam and deleted it.
He followed up only after more art-savvy friends confirmed that it was real and a great opportunity. He ended up earlier this year as one of nine artists from across disciplines who spent three weeks working on the projects of their choice, and it gave Quintron the chance to work out the kinks and fine tune his concept.
“The most unbelievable thing about it was that there were no strings attached. We could have gone there and sat on the beach and watched television for weeks and they would have been, like, ‘No problem,’ ” he said. “Of course, everybody who goes there gets really inspired. All I did was work on it.”
His work at the Rauschenberg Foundation isn’t the first time Quintron has merged the rock ’n’ roll and fine art worlds. In 2009, he and Miss Pussycat had a show, “Parallel Universes,” in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Her puppets were on display, as were some of Quintron’s homemade instruments and Quintron himself.
He installed himself in a mini-studio in the museum behind a velvet rope, where he recorded the album “Sucre du Sauvage” in the plain view of museumgoers.
At first, he planned to sell Weather Warlocks just as he has Drum Buddies. New York avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson bought one, as did Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, but because the Weather Warlock has to be outside to work, it has a drawback.
“It will break.”
Instead, he and Rami Sharkey — better known to New Orleans music fans as the rapper Ballzack — created the Weather for the Blind website as a way to stream the musical output from the Weather Warlock Quintron set up at his house.
“At Rauschenberg, I had the idea to stream it for free,” Quintron says. “I can build the biggest, craziest one I wanted and since I’d be with it all the time I can maintain it. I can tweak it. I can play it. All day long I’m walking by it and twisting knobs. You’re hearing me jamming.”
At first, Quintron set it up in the backyard, but now it lives on his front porch for a simple reason: “I was getting better wind currents in the front.”
He’d still like to strategically place Weather Warlocks around the world in places with different weather. He can customize it so that snow and freezing rain also trigger sound, and he can make it tide-sensitive for locations near the coasts. But so far, the most promising location for a second Weather Warlock is Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville.
People there are interested, and Third Man has people on staff who could maintain the instrument.
Ultimately, Quintron wants the sound to reflect the weather as pleasingly as possible. “I got into the idea that this has to be very peaceful and pleasing,” he said. “It has to drone. That’s the basis of it. There’s an underlying softness to the music that it’s making. It’s just being modulated and massaged by the weather.”