Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit David Byrne's "Playing the Building" sound installation in New York City. The cool part was that I got to be part of a private tour, hosted by Byrne himself — all thanks to a friend working at Visionaire. And because it was a private tour, we didn't have to battle gigantic crowds, which might have made it difficult for us to enjoy the installation's full effect.
As its title suggests, "Playing the Building" is all about turning a building — the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street — into a giant musical instrument. The center of the room features a battered old organ, which happens to have an intricate labyrinth of wires protuding from its backside. Each of these wires is connected to various aspects of the building's structure, causing these elements to vibrate and produce one of three different types of sounds.
If you strike one portion of the organ's keyboard, you might hear a motorlike sound. If you strike the other two portions, you might hear a metallic striking sound or something more akin to wind blowing. While it's not possible to create anything melodic while playing this particular organ, the cacophonous result sounds really neat, especially thanks to the acoustics offered by the bare, old-time building. When you play this particular "instrument," the sound is everywhere, and thus the installation's purpose is fully realized.
As we were told on the tour, the nice thing about this installation is the fact that a person doesn't need to be musically inclined in order to create sound. But I will confess that as fun as it is to have permission — as indicated by the "Please Play" request painted in front of the organ — to make an endless amount of noise, it would be a lot more interesting if we could create something melodic. You could say that such a thought is a bit too influenced by the rules of western tonality, but frankly, it would have been really interesting to have more musical options. I imagine it would be very difficult to enhance the installation in such a way, but the thought of hearing fully-realized melodies and harmonies echoing through the Battery Maritime Building is very appealing and might have made things more compelling since Byrne isn't the first person to create a sound installation.
Despite this, it is a commendable project that is worth visiting, partially due to the appeal of the Battery Maritime Building itself. Dating back to the early 20th century, the building has an abandoned, but beautiful appearance that provides an awe-inspiring environment for Byrne's ambitious venture.
(The installation is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until August 24, 2008. Admission is free).
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