By Justin Caffier, GOOD.is
Photo credit: Bryan Tarnowski
Whether manifesting as music, cuisine, or architecture, New Orleans has always been a city that improvises something remarkable out of a hodgepodge of available scrap ingredients. The Music Box Village—the setting for GOODFest’s second show—proudly shares these values of reclamation and rebuilding with its home city.
The village originated in 2010 as a creative solution to a dilapidated house in need of demolition. Wishing to honor the building’s revered status within the neighborhood, musician and manager Jay Pennington, along with fellow creative collaborators Delaney Martin, Taylor Shepard, and Swoon, salvaged what they could from the house and used those pieces to construct a number of little abodes that each also served as unique musical instruments.
Emboldened by the surprise success of their project, the group took a mobile version of the village to Kiev, Ukraine, as well as cities in the American south, before bringing the program back home to New Orleans in 2016, this time as a more permanent installation.
GOOD spoke with Pennington about the importance of experimental spaces, music education, and how each fits into the New Orleans landscape.
GOODFest: Learning and exploration appears to be an explicit keystone of the village. What educational programming does Music Box provide to the community?
Jay Pennington: We host students from specific classes at the art high schools here. We’ll have a photography class come in and take photos of and talk about the space. Theater students come in and talk about set design. All sorts of disciplines come through and make use of the space.
And then we’ll have the younger kids of elementary or middle school age, where we’ll just bring them in and show that houses are musical places and music is more than what comes out of a trumpet or trombone. Music is sound that is organized in a specific way for your brain to process.
We’ll send the kids out around the town, have them play, and then come back and ask them, “How is your house a musical place and what would your perfect musical house look like?” Then we have them draw that out and talk about those ideas. Really, it’s about exposing kids to the breadth of organized sound.
How do they react to such improvisational experience, presumably coming from more structured educational settings?
Well they’re getting exposed to it surreptitiously. We like to brag that we trick people into coming to experimental music shows.
Nothing better than tricking kids.
And adults! I mean, if you came to me and said, “Hey, man. You want to come to my three-hour experimental music concert?” Ehhhhh, uhhhhhh … maybe, maybe not. But if you’re inviting me to that in a village of musical houses, yeah, I can check that out for a few hours. It works really well as a spoonful of sugar.
Tell us about the Village’s shantytown, Beasts of the Southern Wild aesthetic and why it’s something that’s popped up all over in a post-Katrina New Orleans.
We actually have a really close relationship with Court 13, who made Beasts. In our first village iteration, the art director for that, (director) Behn Zeitlin’s sister, Eliza Zeitlin, made one of the houses for us. So there’s certainly a sort of philosophical alignment between us.
But building the village in the way we did isn’t something we ever really had to sell anyone on. There’s a lot of decay and a lot of blight. The elements of New Orleans are extremely brutal, so you build something and you’re gonna start watching it decay within 24 hours. It’s not so much an aesthetic, as it is a response to nature and the reality of living in a place like this.
So when you see a place like this house that’s no longer a viable residence, you think about how you can uphold the beauty of the actual wood contained therein. That’s one of the core ideas behind Music Box: How do you preserve both the tangible items that go into the construction of the house, as well as its cultural history? It’s part cultural preservation, part experimental music, but the aesthetic itself comes more out of the ‘what do you do when things fall apart’ mindset, than us trying to come up with something that will look good on a Pinterest board.
There’s a certain music festival quality to the village. Have you been involved with something like GOODFest before?
We’re not big festival attendees. We got invited to build one of these at Coachella and we couldn’t find anyone in the organization who wanted to go. Everyone thought it sounded like a lot of trouble and that people might just be throwing up all over the structures. So we’re not so much trying to cater to that level of impermanence, but rather to dig in on something complex we’ve got here at home. We’d rather have something that holds up to fine art rather than appeals to the middle ground. We’re perfectly happy to not be everyone’s thing.
Also, we’d rather encourage people to build these things on their own, as opposed to most festival cultures where everything is done for you and you just show up and experience it. In a way, we’re kind of anti-festival. It’s not about going into the woods somewhere. It’s about putting it right in your neighborhood and realizing those sounds and noises belong with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.