Just a few yards off Harrison Avenue in City Park, a fort made of old lumber looms over the trees and a pond.
It’s one of the structures in The Music Box, a musical, architectural installation presented by New Orleans Airlift. Visual artists created a similar collection of playable sheds, towers, cubbyholes and treehouses in the Bywater in 2011, with musicians playing monthly concerts in it until it closed in 2012.
Airlift has new artists, new pieces and new musicians, and it will host a series of concerts in City Park starting April 3 and 4. During its run until May 10, “The Music Box Roving Village: City Park” will also be open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until 6 p.m., except on show days.
According to Airlift co-founder and artistic director Delaney Martin, the structures literalize the idea that houses produce sounds as they settle. Participating artists create buildings that can create sounds more engaging than creaks and groans, though, sounds that can be summoned on command.
Martin and artist Taylor Lee Shepherd have created what is literally a clapboard house, while an instrument created by students at Georgia Tech University has a series of triggers attached to its many windows, each connected to a synthesizer.
The performer will make music by opening and closing the windows. Between the homemade look of the pieces and the way they play, The Music Box is every 12-year-old’s dream.
Martin wrestles a little with that aesthetic. In theory, The Music Box is open to very different looks if someone can design something compelling. But the recycled, homemade look gives the structures resonance.
“Within this project, there’s something nice about seeing familiar elements reimagined in a wondrous way,” Martin said. “That’s even more freeing to the imagination than things that are so far out the people are, like, ‘I could never think of that.’”
New Orleans guitarist Rob Cambre played in the original Music Box in a fort with a built-in dulcimer-like instrument merged with a hurdy-gurdy.
He’ll be back for these concerts as well, and he has a specific process for getting to know his instrument.
“First, I want to get an idea of what its sonic palate is in terms of its sound itself,” Cambre said. “The actual timbres and textures as opposed to what its pitch series may or may not be. Then what’s my physical interaction with this thing to get sounds out of it?”
That’s not always obvious. During the previous Music Box, Cambre thinks his instrument was designed to be fingerpicked, but since that’s not one of his strengths as a guitarist, he pulled out a series of chopsticks and nail files and bows that helped him generate the sounds he found most compelling.
The exploration is necessary because melody is often the least predictable feature of these homemade instruments. Quintron and guitarist Luke Winslow-King conducted in the original Music Box, and both developed scores that worked more with dynamics and the relationships between the sonic elements than melodic precision.
“Both of them realized that trying to score melodies or even pitches for this unusual orchestra was going to be kind of difficult and maybe not the right idea,” Cambre said.
One of the greats in the improvised music community, William Parker, is coming to New Orleans to conduct the opening weekend Music Box concerts, and he has a specific goal.
“I really want to see if we can make this thing swing and make some music, not just sound,” he said. “Or we can get the sound popping so much that it’s musical.”
Parker has experience with unconventional instruments and contexts. He has played boiling tea kettles, controlling the heat to control their whistles, and he has worked in a kitchen with cooks whose pots were mic’ed.
“When you dropped the vegetables into the oil in the wok, the oil would make a sizzle. We would play against the sizzle,” Parker said.
In the past, Airlift worked to reach across musical communities to find interesting combinations of performers. This time, the lineup includes Cambre, Quintron, Haitian-American singer songwriter Leyla McCalla, Marion Tortorich from indie rock band Sweet Crude, singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Tank and the Bangas, and New York improviser Cooper Moore.
With the exception of Quintron, Cambre and Moore, who builds his own instruments as well, the musicians will be making music very different from what they usually do, so Parker plans to spend the first few days of rehearsal giving them a chance to see what the instruments will do.
“We’ll find out who can manipulate and get sound out of the instrument the best, and we’ll put the best person in the proper house,” Parker said. “This has to be done in a very short time. We don’t have two weeks to experiment.”
The previous Music Box got enough national attention and reputation that adventurous musicians wanted to play there. Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore did a duet night in it with Cambre, while another band came to record sounds that it could later cut up, loop and process in the studio.
Airlift’s Jay Pennington helps choose musicians to perform at This Music Box, and even though it will only be up for a month, he hopes that it takes on a similar life to the first one.
“Anyway we can get musicians into it, we’ll do it, including inviting touring musicians to come over if they have an hour after their soundcheck,” he said. “Slayer’s playing here at the end of April. It would be amazing if we could get Slayer here to hang out.”