David Byrne's Giant Organ


Posted June 21, 2008 - By TylerColfax

There's an amazing art piece in Manhattan right now that allows anyone, free of charge, to "play" a building like you'd play a musical instrument. It's an audio installation conceived by David Byrne of Talking Heads and David Byrne fame and carried out by Creative Time and the City of New York.

I happened to be in Manhattan recently and I got a chance to step up and play the building for myself. The experience was humbling to say the least. I found that my total lack of knowledge about the keys of a piano translated nicely to a poorly conducted symphony of random sounds. But more than that, I realized the limits of my own preconceptions of music.

When I first enter the Battery Maritime Building just adjacent to Battery Park, I'm sent through an antechamber where I sign a release form absolving the city of any responsibility should the house actually be brought down by someone's playing. I hear the random clacking and humming of the building being played in the distance and as I walk up the stairs to the main room, the sounds grow in volume. As I can better discern what is going on, I start to understand that playing the building is not so much musical in the conventional sense. But it may just be as musical as a building can be.

Entering the main room where the organ sits, the first thing I notice is how good the whole piece looks. It's not at all what I expected. Simple arcing lines cut through and bring life to a dirty, brown unrenovated space. I am reminded of those charts of the body from high school showing the central nervous system. The organ is the brain (all puns intended) and the wires carry information and electricity to the rest of the body, telling it what to do.

I forego the "play" line to first explore the room and take in how the whole thing comes together.

The keyboard is divided into three sections; motors, pipes, and pillars. Wires, electrical and pneumatic, run from the back of the organ to the various destinations around the room. The orange and yellow ones, attached mostly to the ceiling carry electricity to a motor, which is weighted internally and strapped to some piece of the building, usually a girder or structural stronghold. When activated, they rotate and vibrate the walls releasing whatever sound it happens to make.

The blue lines are hollow tubes that carry pressurized air to various woodwind-like objects in the room, such as steel pipes. I found these the most satisfying to play as they were somewhat tonal and surprisingly boisterous.

Other green and blue wires carry electric pulses to small solenoids that clack on pillars and radiators to give the building its percussional voice.

As I make my way around the room, others try their best to pound out something rhythmic as they get their chance. The initial desire, I think, must be to make sense of the sounds, to make something recognizable and similar to what we understand music to be as humans. I find my way to the back of the line just as a young girl finishes her opus and the room erupts in applause.

It occurs to me that there is an audience for this building. An audience that is in on the struggle of the person at the keyboard to make this sound good. We all feel each other's pain and thus, we are supportive.

Having waited in line for nearly 20 minutes, the sounds of the room are getting to me. I start to wish I wasn't there. The incessant clacks, vibrations, and unmelodic whirs make me anxious. I just want to play the thing and go.

My turn arrives. I'm encouraged by the floor to "PLEASE PLAY." I'm nervous. I realize I'm nervous and tell myself to shut up. Why be nervous? I sit and attempt to wow the room. I want a similar reception that the young girl got for her random pounding of the keyboard. I am impressed with the lag time which is nearly non-existent. If someone were to take some time and learn this building, they could play it well, what with having percussion and melody right there at their fingertips. But I give up easily when it comes to learning new things and after 30 seconds of frustrated toiling I stand and bow. There is no applause.

I make my way to the door and in a last ditch effort to understand this enigmatic mess of sound coupled with the glorious image of the sun coming in and the openness of the space, I turn to take it in one last time.

I try to release my preconceptions of what the western world has taught me is music. I let it wash over me and I leave. Some artists have goals and specific aims for their pieces. Some artists just do something they think would be cool. Being well acquainted with David Byrne's work musically and otherwise, I think he strives to do both.

After having some time to digest the experience, I think the piece is about letting go of previous notions of music and art. Just like the building itself, sometimes music and art are just there and serve no greater function other than existing for you to discover and explore. The pounding and random noises generated by the building aren't meant to make typical music and that's okay.

Still, it would be really sweet to do the Mario theme on that thing.

If you're in New York, I highly recommend Playing the Building. It's open Fri-Sun, Noon-6pm through August 24.

More info including some great video is at davidbyrne.com

David Byrne's Giant Organ


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