As the sun went down one evening this past autumn, the New Orleans musician Quintron performed an improvisational set inside of Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn alongside a number of other musicians. The jam was centered around an unlikely bandleader: not a human but rather a synthesizer, which had a leader of its own—the weather.
Some clarification might be needed. The Weather Warlock is a synth built by Quintron, who has been making and showing his own instruments for decades now, most notably a device called the Drum Buddy, which is a light-sensor-controlled drum machine he plays at shows, often alongside his wife, the puppeteer Miss Pussycat. Using sensors, the Weather Warlock responds to weather conditions (half of it sits outside) and, when on, creates a continuous stream of music.
“I always had this idea in my mind that I could build a synth that’s controlled by the weather,” Quintron, who has long brown hair and a longstanding sartorial sensibility informed by the more garish side of classic American showmanship (he runs a label called Rhinestone Records), told me after the performance. “But I never had enough time.” Things changed when, in 2013, Quintron was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma. From there, the frequently touring musician found himself off of the road and in search of a project “that required basically just being at home and sort of like calm and chilling out for almost half a year.”
Quintron’s work on the Weather Warlock included quite a bit of what he calls “build, critique, destroy, rebuild, prototype, prototype, prototype,” starting with sounds that were at first jarring (Quintron called early versions an “annoying shriek machine”) but slowly smoothed out. “Probably because of my health situation and trying to really focus on healing and all that—and I’m not that kind of person, but I sort of had to be—I started getting really into consonant drone,” he said. From there, Quintron started fooling around with chords, ending up on E major. Everything was designed so that, in Quintron’s words, “the chord remained constant but it was being massaged and kind of bubbled by the weather.”
At first the Weather Warlock—which, to those unfamiliar with the world of boutique synth making, does not contain a keyboard and almost looks like something out of an old science-fiction movie—was made for personal use, but quickly Quintron realized the device’s potential in the greater American marketplace. “It was like, oh my God, this is the second-best idea I’ve ever had, it’s actually better than the Drum Buddy, this is the best idea I’ve ever had,” he said. “Every grandmother’s gonna have one in her garden.”
From there, Quintron went down the difficult and ultimately dead-end track of trying to make a Weather Warlock for the masses. Going digital was out of the question, and half of the synthesizer sits outside, “so Grandma’s going to be calling me every two weeks like [affecting old lady voice], ‘My rain sensors are rusty again, a bird pooped on a sun sensor.’”
It was around this time that Quintron was nominated to take part in a month-long Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency at the late artist’s 20-acre estate on Captiva Island, Florida. “I thought it was a joke and I deleted the e-mail, and then they e-mailed back and were like, ‘No, this is a real thing,’” he said. (This wasn’t Quintron’s first brush with the art world in earnest. The New Orleans Museum of Art put the Drum Buddy on display in 2010.)
While doing the residency, Quintron “fell deeply in love with [Rauschenberg] and his work,” and although he had been a fan of the artist since high school, he told me that he “never really understood [Rauschenberg’s] mission in life and how art really can, really, really can, make the world a better place and improve people’s lives.” It was in this spirit that Quintron decided to “embrace the future” and stream a feed of the Weather Warlock from New Orleans on the Internet. “Don’t build a digital thing, build a crazy old-school analog thing,” he said, “but stream it for free, live, for everybody, for free, for ever and ever to have. Then Grandma just needs a computer, and she has one now. She may have a Jitterbug phone, but she has a computer.”
The stream has since been showing up in mental hospitals and has been used by the sight impaired. Quintron recently received an e-mail stating that it was playing at a hospice where the elderly go to live out their final days. Because of this newfound Internet-driven accessibility, the device has transcended what Quintron referred to as an “outsider synth cult” and ended up in the hands of “people that have other needs for music, real concrete needs for music.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “A Weather-Controlled Synthesizer, Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg.”