A human-sized halo of bells. A fifteen-foot tall stairstep organ, whose pipes blow under the feet of men and women walking up and down. A bass-line driven by a stethoscope, held to the human heart. A house whose boards and windows and rafters serve as pure percussion, played by a musician whose sole purpose is to tap out a beat on every surface that it offers. A weathervane whose funnels play chords in major keys. Such are a few of the delights of the Dithyrambalina, otherwise known as the Music Box House, on Piety Street in the Bywater.
The closing night’s performance lasted just under an hour: too short. Too short by far.
I first learned of the Dithyrambalina this summer, at the exhibition opening at the New Orleans Museum of Art for “Thalassa,” a show by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, also known as Caledonia Curry. Conceived in conjunction with the New Orleans Airlift, the arts organization which sponsored the construction of the work, the Dithyrambalina — the name comes from an ancient Greek word for hymn — was intended to become a form of musical architecture for the city: a collection of houses as living instruments, architecture and music wed as public art. That night, Swoon invited those in the audience to join her at a celebration where a scale-model of the music house was on display, after which work began in earnest, building the instruments now standing.
And what instruments they are. The concert, hosted by ushers resplendent in Carnival attire and conducted by the musician Quintron (who had his own show at NOMA last year), veered from house to house, beginning with a rousing, ethereal performance by the bell house, swelled to incorporate the step organ, and by the third and fourth pieces had incorporated every structure in the musical town. Not a minute would pass by that we weren’t craning our necks to see what would happen next, who would operate which lever or pluck which string, or who would clap or rattle or shake which new object to send us into the next sonic space.
The songs blended seamlessly into one another, as instruments rose and fell in prominence in the score. Afterwards, the musicians of the Dithyrambalina invited the audience to come forward and explore the instrumentation, an offer that no one could refuse. We poked our noses into every house in town, were offered warm welcomes and explanations of each instrument and were allowed to play several. One in particular, an autoharp and modified hurdy-gurdy dulcimer designed by Ross Harmon, captured our hearts; even as we were kindly asked to make way for the next performance (the set-list changes with each gig, and the musicians have to prepare), Harmon was showing us how he coaxed novel sounds from his idiosyncratic picks: dental instruments formerly owned by his father.
The future of the Dithyrambalina is still uncertain – this was its last performance for the season, and whether it will resume in months to come is up in the air. But even should this installation be dismantled, how wonderful would it be for its legacy to live on as an inspiration for similar projects, in every neighborhood across town? With lines around the block for each performance, and with neighborhood residents literally climbing stepladders to peer over the fence, it’s clear that word of good work spreads quickly. My question is: what is the next backyard project to seize our interest? Whoever out there is dreaming — even just daydreaming — of your own hymn to the city, I’d like to offer two thoughts. First and foremost, don’t sit around and wait for it to happen. Make it happen. With the overflow of talent in this town, there’s help around every corner, and with funding now available with crowdsourcing (via Kickstarter and IndieGogo, among others) the opportunities are closer than ever.
But when you do, please, for all of us who could have listened all night, let it last longer than an hour?
This week: I’ll be taking in a few of the films at the Fifth Annual New Orleans Middle East Film Festival currently on at Zeitgeist. The Festival opened this past weekend, with the critically-acclaimed “This Is Not A Film,” a film by Mojtaba Mirtahsmab and Jafar Panahi (two Iranian filmmakers whose work has experienced severe state censorship) which was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake. With films from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Palestine on offer all week, amid the repercussions of the Arab Spring still unfolding, the chance to visit the region without stamping a passport is at hand. Hope to see you there.
Benjamin Morris is a writer and researcher whose work – poetry, fiction, plays, and essays – appears in a range of publications in the United States and Europe. Around town, he can be found catching music on Frenchmen, crawling the galleries on St Claude, playing soccer in City Park, or occasionally tending bar at the Sovereign Pub Uptown. More information about his work is available at benjaminalanmorris.com.