I loved this Bywater art project. I was possibly the first person to promote it via my writing in Gambit Weekly. Nonetheless that inaugural article is not linked among the NYTimes pieces and whatnot on Dithyrambalina’s website. I am told it’s because I did not give credit to the facilitators and other behind the scenes folks. To me this feels a bit like if Steve Rehage were to dislike my VooDoo Fest article because I focused on KISS and Soundgarden and neglected to mention all of his undeniable hard work… Still, I do regret if the shoutouts were less than thorough; when I am gypped of credit, I feel it for sure.
So, hopefully the following article fron June’s AntiGravity (which predates similar pieces in Gambit Weekly and NPR) makes up for whatever my last piece lacked. Below is the extended remix, featuring way more James Singleton (bass!), among quotes from others who were cut from the A.G. version.
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Dithyrambalina started as a cardboard model of an ornate house, built by New York street artist Callie Curry aka Swoon. Each room in the proposed 45-foot house would be a separate music instrument, so that a group of people could theoretically “play the house.” Dithyrambalina’s beta test – a series of separate intricate musical shacks made from the collapsed house of DJ Rusty Lazer – was brought to life by Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Airlift organization, and was open to the public for tours and performances from November 2011 until June 2012, when the test will be over, and the “shantytown musical laboratory” torn down.
During its relatively short time on Earth, the space hosted local and world-renowned musicians of every stripe: drummers Hamid Drake and Jim White (Dirty Three), old-timey jazz singer Meschiya Lake, hip-hop artists Mannie Fresh and Nicky da B (who filmed a music video at Dithyrambalina with Diplo), noise weirdos Weasel Walter and Rat Bastard, guitarist Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth many more graced the unique space to play its buildings with musicians they might not otherwise have met.
AntiGravity reached out to some of the project’s artists, musicians, architects, builders and facilitators, to discuss memories of the Music Box performances, what they learned from the beta test, and what improvements might be made going forth.
Theo Eliezer is the associate curator and project manager for Dithyrambalina.
What is your strongest memory of the experience?
The night of the afterparty for Swoon’s NOMA show Thalassa last Spring, I had just met Callie and been working with Dalaney a month. Towards the end of that party someone came and grabbed me and said that we were all going to have a toast in the Dithyrambalina model and we somehow squeezed 10 full-sized adults into the small-scale model, which has openings approximately 1′ wide and 2′ tall. We sat in a circle in the miniature house together, twinkling lights coming through the tiny doors and windows, and I suddenly became aware of how surreal and fantastical my future with this project was going to be.
Who worked with or near you during the project and blew your mind?
Serra Victoria Bothwell Fells built her two beautiful shanty houses during non-stop rainstorms and still somehow looked like a post modern gibson girl the entire time. Eliza Zeitlin, our first settler, had super human strength, endurance, and compassion. Benjamin Mortimer insisted that art should be dangerous. And Micah Learned spent a week blow torching everything in sight and somehow didn’t burn down his shanty house (or anyone else’s).
Did any plans change mid-stream?
We went into this last phase of the project thinking we’d eventually build a permanent musical house on the site where The Music Box currently stands. It was only through seeing our packed open hours and event lines around the block that we realized the next phase of the project needs a much bigger space.
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Micah Learned co-designed, built and burned the Glass House. Elizabeth Shannon, Angeliska Polachek, Colin McIntyre and Creative Director Delaney Martin collaborated to make the Glass House the tin rattling, tintinnabulating beauty you see today.
What inspired The Glass House?
Angel showed us some sketches of her designs for the Tintinnabulation Station (the hanging, illuminated, hoop skirt, bell at the center of the Glass House), and we spoke of those recently killed in a warehouse fire. Angel’s piece deserved to be seen from outside as well as from within, and protection from the elements was a must. The glass octagon shape soon followed. The plywood from the floor over the mud pit became the frame and sub-floor of the house. And, many of the beat-up windows that had adorned the Thallassa after party became the walls of the Glass House. Candles eventually became part of the piece as well as we sought to pay homage to those who’d passed in the warehouse fire.
What is your strongest memory of the experience?
My strongest memories of this whole experience are the very early days of construction. It was just us builders on site then, the tinkerers hadn’t come. Eliza Zeitlin was getting the base of the Riverhouse built and Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels was still working on the Heartbeat House. Theo was mapping out where the various structures would go. This was in late July or early August of last year and most of the other artists wouldn’t come until September. Day after day it rained. The weather was either hot or torrential. Piles of wood and debris were everywhere. Daily we were bringing in found materials and going to look at free goods. I remember the excitement and confoundedness of trying to imagine that piece of land and my little corner of it becoming The Music Box.
What aspect of the Music Box worked best?
Collaboration is the core and crux of The Music Box, just as it is with New Orleans Airlift. It took a great coming together of imaginations, skills, and insights to give this its magic, grace, and sense of place. Those attributes have drawn the wonderfully diverse musicians, who in return have added to it in such fantastic bursts. Collaboration and the care of the collaborators has allowed this rather avant-garde experiment to become a playground for neighborhood residents, young and old, who have become collaborators themselves in the ongoing, spontaneous performance.
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Jayme Kalal (aka Microshards) built the Water Organ, which filters keyboard tones through water, controlled by the musician by various spigots. Kalal is one of the few who also built the building that houses his sound experiment. He will participate in the house’s next phase.
What is the next step for you?
We are having a meeting to discuss the next steps in a week. We all have to modify what we’re doing to fit the house, so there will be a lot of discussions. I am dealing with this Water Organ, and the only water is in the bathroom. So the question is, how can you play with somebody while you’re in the bathroom and they’re in the main room? Because of that weird restriction, I have to look at the building and think about opening a wall to the bathroom. The key is being flexible about the layout. There’s no set in concrete concept. I will try to do some version of what I’ve made, the Water Organ.
What modifications might you make?
As a thing that totally just came out of my brain and I took a stab at it, it works great. It just sounds really pleasant because it’s being shaped by a physical thing – water — that’s real and we can connect with. This time I do get to build an auto-refill thing: my only problem was the water evaporates, so I have to design some kind of sensor that goes into the water to let little drips out. Something like the machines they use to feed animals. I want to reconfigure it so a voice could go through the water. I initially selected the keyboard because it’s a very pure sound that you can hear it being shaped. I’d also like to have more durable speakers; I had some ghost in the machine where all of my speakers blew out simultaneously so all the voice coils got fried.
Did you work with anyone you’d always wanted to meet?
Weasel Walter really enjoyed the Water Organ and said I should make one for a guitar, a miniature version. That would be pretty easy. Rat Bastard was fun to meet. I got Thurston Moore to tinker with the Water Organ a little bit. Usually the musicians get pushed in the direction of the instrument they play by somebody else. So I haven’t had any celebrities use mine besides Thurston Moore. But the best part for me was just generally showing it to the public, anyone who walks up, showing them how it works and the feedback I got from anybody — just seeing how much people really like it.
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Michael Glenboski is the Music Box’s consulting architect and project advisor with ten years experience in the New York City art and architecture worlds.
What is your strongest memory of this entire experience?
Seeing kids turn into musicians and adults/parents into kids. Also just how simple most of the ideas and sounds are, and how in sync they are with New Orleans. The shantytown could not work in many other places. Our cityscape and housing stock leads directly to it.
What aspect of the Music Box worked best?
It is exactly what you expect to see on the other side of our huge fence before you even walk through the door and can see it — the mystery of what is making that noise.
What factors do you feel should be taken into consideration as the project goes forth, and turns into a single house?
Just a distinction between the two phases of the project, my role as architect letting the design turn into a world class facility for experimental music, education, and a new landmark destination for New Orleans in our neighborhood.
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Niky Da B is a 22-year-old local bounce-esque rapper and singer who collaborated at the Music Box in November 2011 with world famous New Orleans producer Mannie Fresh, drummer Hamid Drake and others. He went on to record a song and video at the site with producer and DJ, Diplo of the group Major Lazer. The song, “Express Yourself,” can now be seen on MTV.
So how did a rapper fit into the context of the Music Box?
I was a vocalist. I was just hitting all of the crazy shit that I say like the bopbiddybopbiddybopbop and all of that when I rap. That was me. I was on the mic on the bridge that connects to the Voxmurum that Taylor Shepard made, that Mannie Fresh was operating. It’s a wall of pedals that each sample four seconds of anything you say. Mannie Fresh had my vocals and his vocals he was punching in and making whatever beats with it, while I was going live over top of it.
As a New Orleans rapper, it must have been exciting to work with Mannie Fresh.
Yes and no; I already kinda knew how he was. He’s a big jokester, so he made the whole experience really really fun. We practiced together too. He came early to check it out and see what he was going to be doing. Him and me arrived at the same time. It was cool!
How did the song and video with Diplo come about?
I didn’t realize they were going to knock the Music Box down, but…I’ve always said I wanted to shoot a music video for my song “Hot Potato Style” inside the houses. That’s why “Express Yourself” just features the outside fence [with Swoon’s artwork], cause I was going to save the houses for my own video. But now since they’re tearing it down I won’t get the chance.
It seems like it worked out pretty well for you regardless!
Yeah. Diplo came to one of my shows at the Republic. He came down here to work with Freedia but she was on tour. So after my performance he said he wanted to work with me. We recorded the song in November at Rusty Lazer’s house. First, since it’s right in Rusty’s back yard, we went to the Music Box and ran around trying everything out. He liked the samples Mannie Fresh had left in the Voxmurum. That was Diplo’s favorite. Then we recorded. I knew that he was going to stick with the “express yourself, release and go / attack the flow, and work it low,” but I gave him a lot of vocals. Then in January we shot the video. It has done wonders for my career! I am leaving for Australia at 5pm today to go perform with Rusty Lazer.
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Delaney Martin, creative director, curator, and creator of the Rattlewoofer, a car sub- woofer speaker that rattles the glass and tin shack it shares with the Tinntabulation Station.
What part did you play in the Music Box experiment?
I dreamt up the idea to build a musical shantytown as a laboratory for musical architecture. I then reached out to friends and strangers with an invitation to become settlers in this strange village. I guess I acted as the Mayor of the town. If we’d been making a film I would have been the director. Along with Theo Eliezer, I also acted as a producer beginning with fundraising and ending with organizing details of our performances.
I noticed Thurston Moore tackled some instruments that not many of the other visiting artists had really braved.
(New York composer) Taylor Kuffner made the gamalatron with however many buttons, and each button plays a song. You can put it in player piano mode or you can put it in user mode where you can play each thing individually. It’s the showpiece of the town in a way, by day, because it’s really active. But in other ways it’s one of the weaker links; it has kind of a restrictive element. And I told Thurston Moore that [before his show]: it never sounds as rich as when it’s in player piano mode with all the robots playing a bunch of things at once. Thurston was like, “Really. I’m gonna tackle this thing.” And he really managed to play it differently than everybody else. Thurston blew it out of the water. It was kind of stunning.
You’ve been recording a lot of these performances. Where will they end up?
In essence the point of all this is to archive the sound, and make our proof of concept be even stronger, so the spring season was mainly about getting recordings by people. Starting as of last Monday the recording equipment will be set up for the entirety of the installation, so if people show up we can just plug in the mics and not running the wires. Our concerts with Quintron have been magical but they’ve been 45 minutes or 30 minutes – hard to listen to, so we’re kind of trying to get some tracks. Black Dice was here Monday morning. They recorded for maybe an hour and had moments that were great, and other moments where they were just figuring things out, so we told them, “We can edit that down maybe,” and they said, “Oh yeah. Make it three minutes.” [laughs]. What Thurston and Rob did was long but they’ve given us permission to edit it down. Tonight will be just a live recording, but the stuff they recorded yesterday we’re going to mess around with it then run it by them. We’ll probably just post a lot of these recordings on our website, but down the line who knows.
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James Singleton, a versatile and legendary improvisation-based New Orleans bassist, played once at the Music Box with Mannie Fresh, Hamid Drake, Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indian Theris Valdery and others.
What worked for you at the performance and what did not?
I had a ball playing and I felt well connected to Hamid because he was close to me. I was thrilled to be part of an event that brought such disparate types together. And from what I heard, the people who witnessed the performance thought it was great too. But for me, it was hard to have any clear idea what was happening because I was only hearing myself and the drummer. I was playing double bass with effects, I brought my own gear but I also played that big banjo bass (Bathtub Bass by Ross Harmon) which I thought was more of a visual effect than actually a whole lot sonically. Overall though, I thought it was one of those rare instances where the audience had a clearer picture of what happened than I did.
Who most impressed you?
In this one I was more peripheral and a slave of Quintron, who was the conceptual artist. He was the most important one, as far as I’m concerned. The show was his conception, it was his project for all intents and purposes.
So there are things you would change going into the next phase?
I could honestly hear only 10-percent of what was going on. And as an improviser that kind of takes me out of the conceptual function. It worked as a performance piece, it was a visual work, but as far as music goes I would reconfigure it and make it a sort of a walking feast, a progressive dinner. Let the audience go from room to room for different sonic ambiances and conceptions. If they’re building a new house, each room should be a separate composition – you walk from one to the other. Or else just have a solo artist in each room.
I am not sure that’s advice they would take since I think they want it to be a unified, churning, music house. Aside from having monitors, how would you fix that?
I like to be situated in the middle of hearing great music. That’s what makes me happy. If I’m in one room I don’t want to hear the music in the next room. [laughs] I like to create music in space. Now, is it even possible for anybody to perceive music that’s created in different spaces simultaneously? I am not sure it is. When you put walls between the performers? I don’t think it’s possible. It’s almost like, why would you do it?
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Quintron built the Singing House, a weather controlled drone synth. He also helped to curate the musicians, and scored/conducted all the live performances with drama, flare and fun visual cues.
What is your strongest memory of the experience?
Putting a lightning detector on the roof right next to a huge hornet’s nest with a home made bee keeper’s suit on.
Who worked with or near you during the project and blew your mind the most?
I was not running a mind blowing contest. Every single person did their thing and the fact that it even worked so well blew my mind. My friendship with Delaney has to be the greatest gift that I will walk away with. And whats up with the genius who built the river shack bridge structure, Elizabeth Shannon?
How will you do things differently moving forward?
I will improve my rain detectors and just tighten up the electronics and probably contribute some of the technology I developed into other more “house playable” instruments, like a light switch drum machine.
What factors do you feel the creators should take into consideration as the project turns into a single house?
My impression is that there are serious architects at work on this so that’s good. I think if they want to continue the style of performance we developed, there are a lot of “seeing and hearing each other” concerns to be addressed. But the house does not need to be a recreation of what we have already done.