Dithyrambalina

By  |  July 7, 2015
“Cantata,” by Andre Petterson. Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver “Cantata,” by Andre Petterson. Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver

We sat cross-legged on the cement floor of a warehouse in the Upper Ninth Ward, not far from the train tracks. We’d walked there, down a street with more potholes than working lampposts, and crossed under a dark overpass, joining a thin stream of quiet devotees, to find an open space brimming with light. The warehouse was full of optimists: people happy to spend a Thursday night in an empty Montegut Street bottling plant. A man with hand tattoos showed me his car. A lady in a seraphic white gown named Delaney Martin greeted everyone at once. Along one wall of the space was a reclaimed blue school bus with the words CHURCH OF EVERYTHING printed in big block letters across the side; a koi fish was painted high on the back wall, swimming corrugated tin. Near the school bus lay a golden, homemade chandelier—constructed so that a person could climb inside it—trimmed with plastic diamonds and discarded weaves from a neighborhood beauty shop, ready to be hoisted to the ceiling. And in the center we found our reason for being here: a small wooden house with singing pipes built into its walls. This was Chateau Poulet, a musical shanty about to perform for all of us.

 

Chateau Poulet  (meaning, approximately, Chicken Mansion; the builders named the house while they were eating chicken wings) is the first local installment of a project by the arts collective New Orleans Airlift, which aims to create a roving musical village this year. In the warehouse, I attended Poulet’s first public performance, and the event felt not unlike watching an orchestra—a DIY symphony and attendant architects making fine adjustments, seeking concert pitch.

If music, at its best, is immersive, then to be housed within your own instrument promises a new summit of melodic experience. Airlift is in the process of building a village of musical houses that don’t just perform, but that also come apart in order to be transported, rebuilt, and played in neighborhoods all over New Orleans. The Airlift team constructed Poulet largely out of reclaimed and found materials—wood picked up from the sidewalk, pipe volunteered by friends or local organizations—and that brings to the instrument an appealing and nostalgic aesthetic. The wood that makes up Poulet’s frame, for instance, came from the house of a deceased jazz musician, and the boards are weathered, softly colored as the old houses in the neighborhood.

Poulet stands about two stories high, and the wood fans out from the door, creating an impression that it is lifting its gates to welcome you in. The house has an open layout, so you can see the mechanisms and players inside. A half-dozen fans are placed into the walls at varying heights, spinning lazily, and they create the impression of a Southern summer veranda, a relief from the familiar Louisiana heat. Their gently curved blades jut out a few feet from the sides of the house. As I waited for the performance to begin, one of Poulet’s engineers, wunderkind Andrew Schrock, gleefully scrambled up a ladder to rearrange some wiring. He swung up toward the ceiling to fiddle the electrics, saying something about the hoist and the lighting being accidentally on the same circuit. As the overheads dimmed, the co-architects of this house—Schrock and a Berlin-based artist-engineer named Klaas Hubner—took their places within it, while a singer, Mirah, climbed into her rising chandelier.

Those gathered hushed, and I wondered what part of this stripped-down shack could possibly be played by musicians, until Schrock and Hubner pulled, gently, slowly, on cords hanging from the fans, and as they spun faster, tubes attached to the blades caught the air, and an ethereal, choral song filled the space.

The house shook. It surprised me, how loud the song was even without amplification. Beneath the house’s song, I heard Mirah’s slow, improvised, nearly wordless singing. From her round bench inside the floating chandelier, she was caged by the hanging beads, haloed by yellow bulbs around the seat. As the music rose, a banjo player named Marshall LaCount joined in and Schrock gathered all four of the cords in his hands and pulled them down as far as they could go, creating a contralto vibrato and further trembling the house.

During a lull in the music came the moaning of a train horn on the nearby tracks, subdued by the distance and material of the city, and constantly as a soft percussion we heard the ocean-like rushing of cars on the highway above. The singing of the house’s fans was otherworldly—it made me think of women underwater being pulled away; Schrock later told me that a visiting class of neighborhood kids said, “It sounds like angels!” A woman next to me whispered, “I’ve never heard that sound before when I was awake.”

 

Chateau Poulet, though the first of Airlift’s planned movable music houses, is not the first piece of musical architecture they’ve built. In 2011, a blighted 250-year-old Creole cottage fell into the hands of one of Airlift’s co-founders, Jay Pennington, and the city soon threatened to fine him five hundred dollars for the house’s derelict state. At this point, Airlift had been up and running for a few years, and Martin and Pennington had primarily collaborated on video projects and artist exchanges. One year they hosted a Victorian-style salon with artifacts from an imaginary civilization named Zradab; another year they brought over an Estonian performance troupe that set lots of things on fire. When the city sent the notice, Martin and Pennington imagined they could use the doomed cottage for a new venture. They attempted to tear the structure down while keeping the facade, but the house collapsed. They picked up the remains, wondering what they could make with the pieces, before they had what Martin calls “a eureka moment”—they would build the house into an instrument, a wonder.

To start, Pennington reached out to Callie “Swoon” Curry, a Brooklyn-based street artist, who designed an elaborate cardboard model for Airlift’s first full-scale musical house. The model was then replicated into a small box of wood, glass, and song dubbed Dithyrambalina—the name a play on ‘dithyramb,’ the wild Greek hymns sung in honor of Dionysius, god of wine and fertility. Curry modeled Dithy on the remarkable New Orleans steamboat houses, two homes in Holy Cross built in 1905 by a riverboat pilot named Captain Doullut. The steamboat houses, so called because they were designed to look like steamboats, are another sort of architectural miracle—built on the high lip of ground abutting the levee, they were spared the devastation that washed through the Lower Ninth, and in their shape are innately New Orleanian. They look like stranded riverboats, or perhaps round, lacy cakes, with their open-gallery wraparound porches, stained-glass portholes, and crowns of cupola modeled after wheelhouses, from which you can watch passing freighters on the Mississippi.

Inspired by the idea of Dithy—the small shanty/steamboat/instrument amalgamation—Airlift decided to build a village of nine musical structures on a small lot in the Bywater, collectively dubbed “The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory.” The village was made to be easily playable and open to the public: pianos were built into the floorboards of shacks and a homemade bathtub bass comprised part of a window—pulling on the bass’s cord produced a low drone; stepping on a spiral staircase produced notes from pipes salvaged from a Katrina-wrecked church; the “Heartbeat House” featured a rotating speaker on top, attached to a stethoscope that visitors could put to their hearts in order to project their coronary percussions to the crowd. Martin, the self-declared “mayor of Shantytown,” says that nearly a year passed before she realized the particular ways that, on a sonic level, the noise of the Bywater and New Orleans at large was intrinsic to the construction of the musical houses—they built a subwoofer into the floor of another house to imitate the way that cars rattle the houses with their powerful speakers. The Music Box hosted performances by local and national artists including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the Bywater Boys, a local preteen brass band, before closing (as planned) in June 2012. They knew, when they closed it, that it was only the beginning.

The Airlift crew disassembled the village because they believed the project ought to better reflect the city’s musical environment, which is irretrievably tied to movement. Other cities, from Vienna to Nashville, may also be known for their music, but no other city dedicates its music to the public so absolutely. Music here demands engagement from the audience; the sound enfolds and is animated by the crowd. Street-corner brass bands and second lines and bounce are not only highly performative, they’re also uniquely mobile: they travel on foot and form their crowds from passersby so that the music gets carried throughout the neighborhood, making listeners of everyone. Dithy and The Music Box were immersive, interactive, but they were also static, planted in that lot in the Bywater.

Martin and the Airlift troupe designed Chateau Poulet to move, and they’ve recently brought their other musical houses to New Orleans. One, a house of chimes called The Bower’s Nest, just moved down from an installation site in Shreveport. A third, Resonant Memory, which relies more on digital tech and sound loops, came to the city from Atlanta, where Airlift built it in collaboration with Georgia Tech students. Chateau Poulet, though, was the first of the village to be completed and performed at home—New Orleans—the materials gathered from the streets it will roam.

 

New Orleans, like all cities, has its own semiotic geographical code, and in Poulet’s case you would probably note that it sits east of the train tracks but west of the industrial canal; it’s north of St. Claude but south of Claiborne. The Bywater, where The Music Box stood, was once plantation land, largely Francophone, and then grew in the mid-nineteenth century with a mix of French Caribbeans, Creoles, Native Americans, and German and Irish immigrants. Historically blue-collar, the neighborhood now struggles to balance a hundred-and-fifty-year history with changing demographics, including a surge of young people who produce art projects like Dithy and home-brewed Krewe parades.

This means that Poulet operates, for now, in the center of an obvious and disconcerting displacement, and the same demographic parallels exist in the Poulet warehouse. The performance, for example, was attended primarily by middle-class white folk who don’t live all that close, in a neighborhood where long-term residents, mostly black and working class, are being driven out by rising housing costs. Participants and viewers of the original Music Box may have noted that the project was primarily accessible—by virtue of the south-of-St. Claude location—to just those kinds of middle-class transients; confining the project to the territory of the creators would be to exclude these communities from accessing musical projects that second lines and bounce inspired. Martin is sensitive to these criticisms, and has made a point to partner with local music groups in the Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods, including Louisiana Whipz, the 504 Boyz, the all-female motorcycle club Caramel Curves, an incredible array of rap and bounce artists, and others. But the hopeful aim of Poulet and the other musical houses is that they are able to move through many neighborhoods, using the music like a trawler’s net, pulling residents behind and dancing them into places they might not normally go.

 

The transparency of Chateau Poulet, and the grace of the music, makes me acutely aware of the nature of musical creation itself, how sound stems from the passage or vibration of air. When Poulet shakes, the building appears simultaneously fragile and invulnerable, designed as it was by what Martin classes “tinker-adventurer types,” and looking a bit like some able-bodied wild kids tried to make a Disneyland out of scrap wood and junk metal.

Andrew Schrock is a young, friendly experimental engineer who dresses in a manner that reflects his stitched-together sculpture creations. He has a tattoo of a bolt on the inside of his wrist, long hair piled in a bun on his head. Months after the performance at Poulet I saw him again, emceeing a DIY strip show next to the railroad tracks. He’s the kind of grassroots-mad artist who, when finally given a budget for a Vogue-meets-bounce party, asked for one thousand dollars’ worth of beads, and in his boldness is responsible for the post-party-goer ghosts that floated out of the shindig and into the Quarter, drunk in the night, thickly coated in a shimmering ectoplasm of superabundant cheap plastic jewelry. He later reused some of those same beads to decorate the chandelier that Mirah sang from, which was, he said, “constructed literally from trash that was just lying around the warehouse.”

The recycling and transformation of both materials and ideas remains central to Dithyrambalina and the movable musical houses. The idea for Chateau Poulet’s fans, for instance, came in part from the tubes that are sometimes thrown from Mardi Gras floats—the kind that you can spin over your head to make the same warbling humming noise. Schrock says “every little kid wishes they could have fifty arms like that.” They’ve also borrowed technology from go-karts, experimented with lawnmower blades, pulled the glass out of a patio tabletop to create one of the fans, and salvaged hubs and pulleys from old, broken pusher fans. Aside from the physical act of building, he was also conscious of the math and science elements involved—the creaking of the warehouse has its own specific resonance, and the spinning tubes create a Leslie effect, wherein an instrument’s movements actually modify the sound that’s produced.

Christian Repaal, another of Airlift’s engineers, works in the middle ground between Martin’s concept building and Schrock’s high-wire electrical acrobatics. He hails from Maryland, but has lived in the area long enough to remember when our neighborhood church was the site of a murder-suicide, back when the area was “a war zone.” When I asked him what he does now, he said, bouncing his infant daughter on his knee, “I’m a translator. I translate visions.” Repaal was responsible for getting Martin’s, Schrock’s, and the other builders’ ideas translated into the physical fact of Poulet so they could make a house that anyone could take apart, move, and reassemble, while also ensuring that the music was coherent, harmonic, appealing. “It’s about navigating their psyche and vision, being able to listen. Non-linear is a word I use a lot,” he says.

When discussing the house’s song, Repaal says that the open hum of the pipes sounds like a chorus, “in the classical vernacular, post-Gregorian, pre-Handl” sense. The house produces what sounds to him like high music, almost religious music, “like when mass was all in Latin and became like a tone poem.” He says the song also reminds him of science fiction, with the sort of B-movie, synth-like sound reminiscent of alien visitors hovering over us.

He’s right, though what I experienced outside Poulet was a kind of surrealist collage that seemed to embody an anticipation, if not a celebration, of the apocalyptic—a post-Rapture world in which a raggedy house, stripped of its inhabitants, becomes the agent of musical creation. Poulet seems prone to haunting. Or perhaps, recycled as the frame is from discarded materials and lumber from the digs of the deceased, the instrument came pre-haunted.

Whatever its nearest parallel—tone poem, sci-fi soundtrack, chorus of angels—Poulet’s song forms a single, continuous movement, a soporific dreamscape constructed out of tumble-down houses, tables, tires, handmade fan blades, train horns, the nighttime passages of cars. The community that came together to create the structure has become the house’s other song: Schrock, Martin, Repaal, and the other members of this nomadic, orchestral tribe who collaborated to bring forth an instrument that will move through the streets of New Orleans.

After the performance that first night—while the whirling fans slowed and the humming registers dropped and softened—came a long silence. The breeze from the blades pushed hair back from our faces; the audience broke into applause. Once the musicians and builders took a bow—once Martin stood before us in her long gown and talked excitedly about what was to come—they invited us to stand up and go inside the little house ourselves. We stepped up onto the creaking wooden floor. We looked up at the bending arms that hold the pull-cords. We touched the welded metal of the house’s bones. And one by one, we wrapped our hands around the ropes that hung above us, ready to play the spinning instrument ourselves, and pulled.


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Delaney Nolan’s work has appeared in Ecotone, Guernica,  the South Carolina Review, Gulf Coast,  and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

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