Welcome to Music Box Village, New Orleans' Magical Performance Venue

Elizabeth Nicholas

New Orleans may be famous for its jazz clubs, but the coolest spot in town to hear live music is far from the French Quarter, and instead in what used to be a steel fabricator’s yard in the Bywater neighborhood. There, Music Box Village sprawls in all its vaguely trippy glory, crammed with shanties and tree houses that surprise visitors by emitting music when they open the doors or tap on the walls.

This fun house of sound grew out of a public art project from New Orleans Airlift, an arts organization dedicated to increasing civic engagement with art by staging experimental public art. In 2011, the Airlift worked with a group of local artists and musicians to create a “symphony of musical sculpture” in an empty lot in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood. The concept was so popular that it’s still around—now formalized in a permanent Music Box Village.

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Visitors can explore the premises for hours, finding endless unexpected delights in the way that the village creators have rigged everything up to surprise their sense of sound. For instance, a sliding door to a pagoda is rigged up to a steel string, guitar slide, and an amplifier, so if guests think that they’ll simply be passing through a door, they’ll have to think again. Visitors can also talk into a payphone, which then throws their voices across the campground thanks to a hidden array of microphones and speakers. Wind chimes in one shed are tuned to play particular musical notes as the breeze hits them.

Not just an exploratory museum of sound, the space is regularly used for concerts as well. Headliners include everyone from classical orchestra ensembles to bluegrass and jazz bands to young, local singer-songwriters. Some musicians have even recorded albums on the site. And whereas traditional performing spaces require silence during performances, the way that the organization constructed Music Box Village makes that impossible. When people open and close the doors or step on the floorboards, there may be a steel guitar sound, or a foghorn, or a cricket chirp, and this means that no two performances will ever be or sound the same—not to mention it makes for an additional challenge for performers.

So the next time you’re in New Orleans, after making the requisite stops at Café du Monde and strolling the streets of the French Quarter, slip away to an old lot in Bywater and prepare to be enchanted.

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