David Byrne ‘Playing the Building’ by Julie Benoit

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This past weekend I took a MICA bus to New York. I wasn’t dying to spend 8 hours on a bus to and from New York to only spend 6 hours in the city, but I did it anyway. I really wanted to see the new David Byrne installation.

For those who aren’t familiar, David Byrne created a sound installation called ‘Playing the Building’, in which he turns the infrastructure of the Battery Maritime Building in New York into a giant musical instrument. He used a retro organ and placed it in the center of the room and asked the audience by painting on the floor to “please play.”

After I signed a waiver that I didn’t even read I walked up a few flights of stairs anticipating what I was about to see. I walked into the huge space and was confronted with an old beat up pipe organ that sat in the middle of an old, paint peeling, and well-abandoned room. The space was beautifully lit in an almost sacred way from the sun that was shining in from the skylit ceiling. The lighting made the organ seem as though it were glowing on an altar of some sort.

Attached to the organ were many tubes and wires hanging on to the ceiling and also to the organ. It was hard to not be overwhelmed by the amount of tubes and wires that fell from the ceiling and were connected to the organ, they made a drawing of their own. I wasnt sure who was keeping who going. Was the building keeping the organ alive, or was the organ keeping the building alive. After a few seconds of being in the room I noticed that the organ was connected to the room to make music and I kind of felt like the organ was keeping the room alive. The room was definitely alive with the sound and with the energy that was being produced by this organ.

I wasn’t sure where to start so I began by slowly walking around the strange and enormous room. I began by following the clanks that I was hearing as someone else was taking their turn playing this organ. I found that the clanks were actually being made by small hand-built hammer like devices. Each time a person would strike a key it would then activate one of the devices to come in contact with some thing in the space and make a sound. The sound resonated beautifully through old metal columns, pipes and such.

I looked up and around and saw so many of these little devices that were attached with wires from the organ to objects that were a part of the interior of the building structure; for example the metal beams, the plumbing, and the radiators were used to make these devices produce sound. These little machines will vibrate, strike and also blow across the elements of the building creating vaguely familiar and finely tuned sounds. They do not produce sound themselves, but they do cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument that the visitors waited patiently to play.

The space was very alive as well as very exciting. There were about 40 people in the room while I was there and each person seemed to be completely entranced by the installation. There was a line of folks waiting patiently for their turn to take the stage and play the building. As each person ended their performance the existing crowd would follow up with clapping as though the inexperienced organ player had just finished an actual musical performance. Some people in the crowd were sitting on the floor against a wall almost as though they had been sitting there all day watching different performances within the space.

I waited patiently in the long line to take my turn on the organ. It was really an amazing experience to have a few minutes to play this piece. I played a duo with my friend Fritz. I couldn’t help but to strike a key and figure out which part of the space I was activating. I felt like more of an investigator than a performer. The experience of playing the organ was one I can’t really even describe. What I can say is that it was pretty awesome to be an active part of this piece.

I will definitely make another trip to New York before August 10 which is when the show closes in hopes to spend a bit more time in the space. I need to go back up and spend a day in the space and not have to rush back someplace to catch a bus. I would like to be alone in the room and see what that feels like.

David Byrne ‘Playing the Building’
Up through August 10
Friday Saturday Sunday 12-6
Battery Maritime Building
10 South Street
New York, NY.

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