By Andrew Purcell
The great hall of New York's Battery Maritime Building is singing, groaning, rattling and sighing. Pipes clank furiously, like a school band let loose in a scrapyard. Girders vibrate at frequencies so low, you'd think a passing steamship was sounding its foghorn.
Creating this extraordinary symphony is David Byrne, seated at an old pump organ in the middle of the vast hall. Blue and yellow wires attached to the back of the organ - which has circuit boards and pressure gauges where its innards used to be - carry signals and impulses off to every corner of the room and out into the building beyond. With the press of a key, Byrne fires bursts of compressed air across holes in the plumbing, providing a flute-like effect, while hammers strike cast-iron columns.
The words "Please play" are written in yellow on the concrete floor. So I do, quickly discovering that eight years of childhood piano lessons are no use here. Notes are arranged roughly low to high, but chords are hard to find. It doesn't matter. The process of experimentation is entrancing enough.
"Getting this was a real lucky break," says Byrne, surveying the hall, all crumbling stucco, peeling paint and broken panes of glass. "It's this beautiful place no one's been in for 50 years. It's incredible some developer didn't think, 'We'll put an arts centre or a concert hall in there.'" Byrne is no stranger to conceptual art. His career in this field began at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s, though was immediately overshadowed by his work in Talking Heads. He has always been wary of incorporating music into his art, though, fearing it would be seen as a rock star hobby. Playing the Building, as this project is called, is a rare exception.
It began three years ago, when Byrne was commissioned to create an exhibit for the Färgfabriken gallery in Stockholm. After toying with the idea of installing an enormous microwave oven, he decided to turn the building into a musical instrument instead. For weeks, he carried a rubber mallet everywhere to test the acoustic properties of beams and scaffolding. He ran wires from his studio to the lamppost outside, experimenting with spring-loaded magnets that struck it with a small metal bar.
The machine he rigged up transformed an old factory into an industrial orchestra. It was such a success that, as soon as its run was over, he began searching for a New York venue, with the arts group, Creative Time. The Battery Maritime Building was secured and, at the recent opening, Byrne watched as New Yorkers queued up to play the building. "They get this look on their face," he says. "An ecstatic look of 'I'm doing this. I'm making this big building make sounds, little me at this funky old organ.'"
Children attacked the keys with elbows, couples played cacophonous duets. To Byrne's relief, no one hogged the piano stool. "The experience of listening to the result of something you do is very different from what culture has become over the last century, which is stuff you buy. Or you go see it, let professionals do it and just sit there and be a good person and a sponge - instead of having any involvement." His mocking tone is a reminder that, in the truest sense, Talking Heads were a punk band.
Byrne shares a fascination for authorless art with his friend Brian Eno, who produced the Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light. Eno's Oblique Strategies - a deck of cards he created to help resolve artistic dilemmas - may have informed Byrne's musical building work. The first card in the original deck says: "Abandon normal instruments."
Byrne has other things in the pipeline. Last autumn, Eno sent him "some tracks he didn't feel like writing words to". Byrne gave them lyrics and melodies, then British guitarist Leo Abrahams and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco added some licks. After six months of exchanging ideas by email, only meeting up in the latter stages, the resulting album is almost finished. Byrne won't, however, say what it is called, when it will be released, or even what it sounds like. He will only describe it as "electronic gospel" and liken some songs to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but with vocal melody lines. He will tour to promote it with his usual band, but without Eno. Dates will be announced soon, starting in the US in September and reaching Britain "around March".
Byrne is now back on his bike, a month after breaking two of his ribs after crashing on his way home from a dinner party at the house of artist David Shrigley. He cycles everywhere, in fact, a familiar figure in New York, his white hair and erect posture instantly recognisable at a gig or a show's opening. He usually stands at the back, taking it all in, consuming art as hungrily as he produces it.
This summer, he has his opera about Imelda Marcos to finish, with a cast of singers that will include Sharon Jones, Cyndi Lauper, and Santi White. He also hopes to lay a carpet decorated with 100 guitar pedals in the foyer of an exhibition, after being thwarted once before by a nervous superintendent worried about women wearing stilettos.
"This was a New York event," he says. "You could see it - a whole pile of ladies in high heels, laying there, all calling their lawyers."
At the end of the summer, Playing the Building will be dismantled and recalibrated at a new venue. The Baltic in Gateshead is interested, although nothing is settled. Given the chance, Byrne would love to install it inside the Statue of Liberty. "It's all girders and copper, spiral stairways going all the way up," he says. "Of course, they'd never let you in there".