This building is sound

He's done burning down the house. Now multimedia artist David Byrne is raising the roof at a seldom-used downtown building. He tells us why.

During the heyday of the Talking Heads, frontman David Byrne performed in an outlandishly oversize “big suit,” so you might say he has an affinity for working in ample spaces. That’s certainly apparent in his latest project, Playing the Building. Stationed in the 1908 Battery Maritime Building in lower Manhattan, the piece—an interactive, site-specific installation sponsored by Creative Time—doesn’t take up that much room physically. Sonically is another matter: Byrne is turning the 9,000-square-foot second-floor hall of the Governors Island Ferry terminal into an instrument, using a retrofitted antique organ whose keyboard is connected electrically and pneumatically to different elements—girders, pipes, conduits—within the space. Through a series of tubes, motors and solenoids, visitors can “play” the Beaux Arts edifice, creating pinging, rumbling and blowing sounds by hitting the keys.

How the piece works
“The idea is that the public can sit down and play this thing, and that when they do, it should be pretty obvious what’s going on. They’ll see machines mounted up on the girders and the pipes and the columns, and they’ll notice that as soon as they hit a key, a sound comes from the building. There’s all this stuff coming out of the back of the organ like a big octopus; some are little tubes blowing compressed air into the plumbing pipes. Those sound like alto flutes, kind of pretty. Some are wires that go to these strikers; those will be like little gongs, hitting the radiators and big metal columns with high, percussive notes. Other wires go to motors that are strapped like crazy to girders and support structures within the building. They’re hung off balance, so they shake and vibrate, which makes a sound like when a car or truck goes over an iron trestle bridge. Depending on the length of the metal beam, they make different notes.”

Where the idea came from
“An alternative-arts space in Stockholm inside an old paint factory invited me to do something. One proposal was to turn the space into a giant walk-in microwave. The idea was that visitors could cook themselves [Laughs], but just a little. Once you start to feel it, you know you’re done. Anyway, the organ idea is the one they went with.”

The difference between Stockholm and New York
“Of course there will be some differences, but the two buildings are from the same period, so they’re also pretty similar. Both have steel girders, and the Maritime Building does have this incredible skylight—but basically, both are factory-like buildings which produce this sound you might call industrial music.”

The organ donation
“I inherited it from a guy who used to have this print shop in the West Village, near the Meatpacking area. Eventually he got kicked out because of rising rents, and he said, ‘I’ve had this thing in my place for ages. I’m not going to take it with me.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll pick it up.’ The piece was never conceived around the organ, but when I thought about it, I figured, Well, I might have to sacrifice it. There was something about using an antique and ripping the guts out of it, and revealing that by putting Plexiglas on the back so you can see what’s going on. It makes it obvious that it’s not synthesized. That it’s not samples or speakers or microphones. That it’s old-fashioned. It’s not electronic, it’s electric. It’s all air pressure and wires.”

How to play the organ
“It involves just the white keys, and they’ll be clearly marked so people know what they’re doing. It kind of goes from high- to low-pitched; it doesn’t go in an even-tempered scale, but there will be some 40 potential sounds that someone can play. I think what’s nice about it is that it takes away any advantage that a trained musician has. It brings everyone to a level playing field. A great musician sitting down to play it would be at about the same level as a kid. It’s…fun for the whole family! [Laughs]”

How the building was picked
“Creative Time is tapped into all the unusual spaces that the city has and that they’re waiting to develop. We looked at a few other buildings. Some were too open to the street, so that there would be all this noise that would come in and drown out whatever we were doing. Another had flaking lead paint. And the city said, ‘Yes, you could do this here, but no children would be allowed.’ Well, in Stockholm we found that kids really loved this, so I didn’t want to do it in that space. And the Maritime Building was sealed off from the outside. Plus, it’s this striking place with a big skylight.”

Playing the Building is installed Sat 31–Aug 10; Fri–Sun noon–6pm. Free.