The musical magic of New Orleans can be found all over the city, including its Bywater neighborhood.
In this very small chunk of the 9th Ward that survived Hurricane Katrina, a ragtag group of artists called New Orleans Airlift first constructed "Dithyrambalina," in 2011. It's now better known as the Music Box: a village of small structures, each one playable as a musical instrument.
Various incarnations of New Orleans' Music Box attracted musicians from all over the world: producer/composer Arto Lindsay, drummer Hamid Drake, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and members of Wilco. That's not to mention all of the famous locals drawn to perform together at Dithyrambalina.
Now Sarah Howard, University of South Florida curator of public art and social practice at the Institute for Research in Art, has helped deliver the most recent version of the Music Box to the Community Stepping Stones site at Sulphur Springs' Mann-Wagnon Park.
"We don't have that same rich population of world-renowned musicians here," Howard said. "But we do have talented musicians in the bay area, and they've helped us make this new Music Box about our community."
To understand what currently sits at Mann-Wagnon, you have to go back and study how the original Dithyrambalina evolved in New Orleans.
The idea of a musical village first came from New York-via-Florida artist Swoon, who designed a beautiful cardboard mockup Music Box for New Orleans Museum of Art. In a weirdly advantageous turn, the historic Bywater shotgun home of Jay Pennington (a.k.a. Rusty Lazer, former DJ to transgender bounce artist and reality TV star, Big Freedia) collapsed one day in a heap of wood, leaving a big open space for Dithyrambalina, plus all of the salvage materials the artists could wish for.
By year's end, luthier Ross Harmon's autoharp folded out from the wall of a treehouse. Jayme Kalal built a "water organ," where attendees turned spigots, manipulating sounds by varying water flows.
Visitors controlled Aaron Taylor Kuffner's robotic gamelan (an Indonesian percussion orchestra) via video game buttons. New Orleans one-man-band Ratty Scurvics created a "drum bunker" stuffed with bells, cymbals, and several homemade Portuguese adufe drums. Another one-man-band, Quintron, added "The Singing House," a weather vane that read the sun, wind and rain, and spat it back out as "music." Visitors played the loudly creaking floorboards of Ranjit Bhatnagar's "Noise Floor" shack in New Orleans with their feet.
Hoping to improve upon his invention, Bhatnagar has come along to Sulphur Springs to collaborate with artistic architect Alyssa Dennis on "The Pitchbow House." The Sulphur Springs site also hosts the "Lunar Tool Shed," by nomadic artist Tory Tepp, and the "Syphonium," by the Tampa-based LiveWork art collective, which uses water from the river to power its whistling pipes.
The new Music Box definitely benefits from its gorgeous location on the water.
"We have locals passing it in boats, which has been surprising and fun," says New Orleans Airlift's Delaney Martin, who along with her artist husband, Taylor Lee Shepherd, have spearheaded all the Music Box projects. "We built a water tower that draws from the river to propel the mechanisms in the "Syphonium." We had so much extra water, we just kept adding more water: we built a big waterwheel on "The Pitchbow House," and then just we went ahead and built an aqueduct system linking all three musical structures together."
Open since March 25, Tampa's Music Box has hosted Kuumba Dancers and Drummers as part of Ray Villadonga's Modified Mosquito Massive improvisational world-music presentation.
"Then we had the post-punk band, Career," Howard said. "They were hacking into the structure with their pedals. They wrote a whole narrative specifically for the exhibit, about otherness and community. They really got it."
Martin and Shepherd have taken a more administrative role in Tampa than they have on past Music Box projects, which Delaney says has left room for the other artists to collaborate.
"We get the added bonus of meeting new people in a new place," Martin said. "That way, this project takes on the cultural attributes of this place, the sights and sounds of the area, the culture of Sulphur Springs, and this primordial river."
Martin did, however, bring a few ideas from New Orleans.
"We plan to do a little parade through the neighborhood soon," she promises, "to hand out free tickets, and really bring the local community into the exhibit."
Contact Michael Patrick Welch at [email protected]