The Music Box: Tampa Bay

Documentary by BoomBap Productions

The Music Box - A Shantytown Sound LaboratoryArchitectural models for Swoon’s Dithyrambalina project

Musical architecture, conceived as invented structures embedded with musical instrumentation, was developed in 2010 when New Orleans Airlift founder and artistic director Delaney Martin, Airlift lead sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd, and artist Swoon, were considering how to transform the materials and site of a disintegrating 250-year-old cottage into a collaborative space for public art. Inspired by New Orleans’ unique musical and architectural traditions, they decided to create a musical house. Swoon’s grand architectural model for a single structure, called Dithyrambalina, led Martin to envision an entire village of musical houses that could serve as a performance space and laboratory for radical collaboration and experimentation by artists, musicians, and audiences. Since their initial installation of The Music Box in New Orleans in 2011 and 2012, Airlift has created additional outposts in Kiev, Ukraine (2012), Atlanta, Georgia (2014), Shreveport, Louisiana (2014), and New Orleans (2015), continually expanding their network of collaborators and incorporating structures from each installation into their growing collection of musical houses. In the spring of 2016, Airlift purchased a site in the Bywater along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans as a permanent home for The Music Box, and it now includes two additions from the Tampa Bay outpost.

12513887_606722226144143_6545904120192693709_oThe banks of the Hillsborough River in Mann-Wagnon Park

The lush, subtropical landscape of Mann-Wagnon Park, tucked into the banks of the Hillsborough River, provided an ideal backdrop and rich historical site for The Music Box: Tampa Bay. Just downriver from the Sulphur Springs Water Tower–site of the now polluted mineral springs that served as a major tourist attraction in the early twentieth century–the property was previously used as a fish camp by the related Mann and Wagnon families. In 1960, the property was donated to both the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County for educating youth about art and nature. The historic buildings at the park recently housed three non-profit organizations including USFCAM’s community partner and generous site host, Community Stepping Stones, an organization dedicated to youth arts education. Recent urban renewal efforts led to the demolition of the historic structures to make room for the construction of a new facility for the community organizations. Fortuitously, the heart pine rafters, roof deck boards, windows and tin roofing from the historic bungalows were salvaged and repurposed into three new structures, in keeping with Airlift’s aesthetic and utilitarian approach to materials and reinvesting the history of the site into the musical village.

10293794_606242382858794_8909865897919290896_oStudents from the USF College of The Arts helped build The Music Box: Tampa Bay

The Music Box: Tampa Bay incorporated Airlift’s collaborative model, uniting and building community by inviting local and visiting artists, students, and community volunteers to work together, amplifying creative potential towards a common goal. Over two dozen students from CSS and USF College of The Arts’ music, art and architecture programs worked alongside the eight lead artists for four weeks, assisting with materials preparation, construction, and public presentation. The activity and sounds at the site opened access and initiated a dialogue with the surrounding communities – the organizations and construction crew working on-site, curious neighbors in the alley, on the river and beyond. A few community members joined the crew and helped with the build, and neighbors enjoyed the site during public cultural events and performances. All of the contributors brought their energy and talents to the structures and infrastructure, creating instruments to explore sound and music, individually and collectively.

Pitch Bow House 1Pitch Bow House

New Orleans Airlift invited previous collaborators Ranjit Bhatnagar, a Brooklyn-based sound artist, and visual artist Alyssa Dennis to Tampa to design and construct a musical house. Bhatnagar and Dennis expanded on their past vision and concepts to build the two-story Pitch Bow House. Designed to create multiple vantage points and perspectives, Dennis incorporated window frames, pierced openings and transparent doors that suggest boundaries and oscillate between interior and exterior space. Dennis’ open-air design, lined with porous tulle and lace fabrics and windows etched with botanical imagery, allow the structure to breathe, relating to the Dennis’ concepts of constructed spaces as biological networks and ecosystems. Accessible by a ladder, the upper deck features scalloped awnings and provided an elevated view of the river, evoking the nostalgia of a riverboat cruise. The pitched roof and slanting angles echo the musical pitches produced by the structure’s instrumental features. Building on his inventive sound installations and original noise floor as part of The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, Bhatnagar designed two interactive noise floors with visible mechanisms incorporating easily-sourced materials. The lower level’s squeaky, creaky, wooden noise floor is inspired by the nightingale floors found in the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan, cleverly installed to alert samurai of potential invaders. The Dance Clavichord floor, on the upper deck, can be performed both by stepping and dancing on the floor/keyboards, activating the tangents on the stringed clavichord, as well as playing the strings by hand. The Pitch Bow House also features two of Bhatnagar’s sliding string instrument designs, a sliding window and double sliding doors, the latter included in the exhibition. These slide instruments reference the Diddley Bow, a one-stringed African instrument that inspired the slide guitar and influenced the sound of blues music in the American South.


Fostering connections to the local arts community, USFCAM invited LiveWork Studios artists Janine Awai, Devon Brady and Michael LeMieux, tapping into their collective multi-disciplinary talents in art, music, architecture and construction to design and build a structure. The Syphonium is composed from a series of musical pipes affixed to the exterior of an urban water tower silo, fueled by water pumped directly from the adjacent river by a primitive rope pump powered by a bicycle rider/performer. The Seussian whistling and honking sounds generated by the siphoning pitches of the six musical pipes, two each of bass, mid and high octaves, are played from a series of switches on a control panel in the tool box mounted to the bicycle’s handlebars. The fluctuating pitches of the pipes produce complex patterns of interference and auditory spatial illusions, creating a sensory disorientation as they stimulate strobe lights on the inside chamber. Providing a tranquil counterpoint to the sensory assault of the water tower’s interior, and a view of the river blocked by the structure, a camera obscura mounted on the roof of the Syphonium projected the reframed landscape on a lens mounted in the ceiling. The
 interior was festooned with Gasparilla beads, a nod to the shared processional parade traditions of the Airlift collaborators, some reclaimed directly from the river and others sourced from community donations. The multisensory nature of the installation was enhanced through the Syphonium’s aqueduct system, which provided waterworks for the entire village.

Lunar-Tool-Shed-2000Lunar Tool Shed

With his extensive experience with community-based projects incorporating urban agriculture, land art and music, artist Tory 
Tepp was an integral contributor to the project. Inspired by the traditional architectural design of the native Floridian chickee huts, the Lunar Tool Shed housed musical instruments repurposed
 from gardening tools, including the Sandman Bass created from a shovel, a percussive wheelbarrow, water cymbals and the Dirt Lab encouraging sound exploration and collective play. The Lunar Tool Shed functioned as the community garden for the village. The beans, herbs, corn, sunflowers and heirloom moonflowers grew entwined with the architecture, and continue to evolve as the Lunar Tool Shed remains in Mann-Wagnon Park indefinitely. Tepp united the structures and defined the site with his sodded Sonic Berms, which incorporated speakers and provided seating for public events.

20160402_194951Career performing at The Music Box: Tampa Bay

Following the build, The Music Box: Tampa Bay became a platform for extending its creative and community reach through free cultural events offered to the public for four consecutive weekends, from March 25 through April 17, 2016. Musical performances were presented on Friday and Saturday evenings by a roster of diverse local musicians, including world musicians Ray Villadonga and The Modified Mosquito Massive, postpunk band Career, hip-hop reggae collective Gwan Massive, and the experimental and avant-garde music of the USF Composition Program.

Ray Villadonga and The Modified Mosquito Massive performing Sulphur Springs Symphony

Career performing Structures

Gwan Massive performing Gwan in the Jungle

In total, 60 musicians and performers entertained nearly 1,500 audience members during eight performances over the four weekends. Additional programming reverberated the creative force of the project, including an artist talk by New Orleans Airlift collaborators, a talk about the history of Sulphur Springs by local historians, an open jam session, an open mic night hosted by the youth spoken word group Heard ‘Em Say, who performed works inspired from the sounds of the structures, and a yoga class was even held at the site. Open play days attracted families, groups and visitors of all ages and ability levels to interact with and enjoy The Music Box, including two visits by Pyramid arts program students with moderate to severe disabilities.

Facebook page was created to help promote and grow interest in the project during building and to provide information about free tickets for performance nights. During the busiest moments of the project, the Facebook page reached over 3,000 visitors and after the end of the project the page is approaching 1,000 likes. Throughout the project’s run there was consistent interaction through Facebook posts and interested people asking questions about the project. A search of the hashtag #musicboxtampabay across multiple social platforms elicits posts of images and comments demonstrating the positive engagement generated with the community.

MB5Installation view of Amplified: Reverberations from The Music Box at USFCAM

Following the public performances, USFCAM staged the exhibition Amplified: Reverberations from The Music Box, an opportunity to reflect on the history, collaborative process and community engagement generated by New Orleans Airlift’s multi-disciplinary musical architecture project. Reframing The Music Box: Tampa Bay within the context of the institution, Amplified invited viewers to play instruments from the installation, view performance and documentary videos, and learn from models, photographs and ephemera. In the spirit of Airlift’s mission to connect communities and encourage opportunities through shared resources and exploratory experiences, USFCAM invited local artists to create and share their artworks in the exhibition based on their own engagement with The Music Box.

MB6Installation view of Amplified: Reverberations from The Music Box at USFCAM

The exhibition was organized into four areas: Play, Look/Listen, Learn and Participate. Elements from The Music Box: Tampa Bay including the sliding front doors from the Pitch Bow House and the Sandman Bass and wheelbarrow drum from the Lunar Tool Shed were instsalled so that museum visitors could experiment and explore the sounds generated by the instruments.

MB14Installation view of Amplified: Reverberations from The Music Box at USFCAM

Visitors were able to become immersed in the sights and sounds of The Music Box: Tampa Bay in the Lee and Victor Leavengood Gallery. One of three projections featured a time-lapse video of the build and run of the project, one presented each of the three performances shared here, and one included performances from two other New Orleans Airlift Music Box installations.

MB17Installation view of Amplified: Reverberations from The Music Box at USFCAM

In the hallway joining the galleries, visitors could learn about the history and development of New Orleans Airlift’s musical architecture projects and the creation of The Music Box: Tampa Bay. Objects, photographs, design sketches, flyers, programs, scores, and models from different iterations of the project told the stories of Music Box installations in Kiev, Ukraine; City Park, New Orleans; and Tampa.

MB4Installation view of Kendra Frorup, Melody in the Men’s Room, 2016 (foreground) and Joe Griffith, 27,000 and drawings of imagined instruments and seating, 2016 (background)

MB10Installation view of Christine Comple and Michael J. Bauman, Propagating Temptations, 2016

MB22bInstallation view of E.E Dyemon, Untitled (Mechanism for remembering in times of storms and death), 2016 (foreground) and Wendy Babcox, A memory is never heard, 2016 (background)

The Music Box is an incredibly generative creative engine. In its spirit of collaboration and participation, USFCAM invited local artists to contribute new artworks inspired by their experience with The Music Box. Visitors could see and interact with their diverse and multifaceted creations in the West Gallery and lobby. Wendy Babcox, Shawn Cheatham, Christine Comple and Michael J. Bauman, Silvia Curbelo and Rhonda J. Nelson, Marcus DeSieno, E.E. Dyemon, Kendra Frorup, Joe Griffith, Jason Lazarus, Desireé Moore, Sharon Norwood, and Kym O’Donnell all contributed original works to the exhibition.

Both The Music Box installation and Amplified exhibition harnessed the power of New Orleans Airlift’s mission to inspire wonder, connect communities and foster opportunities through arts education and the creation of experimental public artworks. The Music Box experience was an opportunity to bring together diverse groups of artists, musicians, students and audiences who worked together, created alliances and built new relationships that will continue to thrive, unite and expand our creative communities.

The Music Box: Tampa Bay was supported by a National Endowment for the Arts ART WORKS grant, The Frank E. Duckwall Foundation, The Gobioff Foundation, and the USF School of Art and Art History’s Bank of America Community Arts Endowment Fund. To find out more about how NEA grants impact individuals and communities, visit

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