By Martin Johnson
During his 17 years as frontman for the legendary rock band Talking Heads and since their breakup in 1991, David Byrne has worked with some of the best musicians in the world. In his new work, "Playing the Building," anyone can play.
The work is an installation in the long-empty Battery Maritime Building at 10 South St. in Lower Manhattan, near the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and it literally turns the 9,000-square-foot building into a highly charged sonic environment. An antique organ has been placed in the middle of the structure's cavernous second-floor space, and via a series of tubes it is connected to the infrastructure, beams, water pipes, plumbing and heating devices. Playing the organ creates a unique series of sounds, reverberations and resonances from Maritime Building's innards. The installation is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 6 p.m. through Aug. 10. Admission is free.
Although he still makes music in more conventional ways — leading a band, making records and touring — sonic installations like "Playing the Building" and other art projects are taking a large share of Mr. Byrne's attention. He curated a show about chairs that completed a tour of major galleries this winter, and his installation of guitar pedals was part of a benefit for The Kitchen at the Puck Building on May 21. Attendees walked over a carpet of 100 pedals, resulting in a wide variety of sounds.
"I still imagine that sometimes art or some cultural activity can alter the way we see things," said Mr. Byrne in an interview on May 15. "I sense that when the activity is in the public sphere it has greater odds of doing this than in a gallery."
His interest in the sound of buildings came from his varied experiences during more than three decades of living in New York apartments. "Buildings make noises: radiators, pipes, creaks and rattles. I sensed that this could be a little more organized and maybe even musical."
This move may not surprise enthusiastic followers of Mr. Byrne's career. Although he gained considerable fame via the Talking Heads, a band that integrated rock, funk, African and Cuban styles in a searing amalgam, there has also been evidence of his interest in found sounds. His first project outside of the group was 1981's "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" (Sire), a recording with vocals and rhythms taken entirely from other previously recorded music and spoken words. The work, a collaboration with experimental music legend Brian Eno, was controversial at the time, but its technique and composition have become commonplace in pop music now.
"Playing the Building" had its beginnings in Stockholm three years ago. Jan Aman, the director of Fargfabriken, a Swedish arts organization, approached Mr. Byrne about doing a project in a former factory space. Mr. Byrne had grown fascinated with what sounds could be produced by hitting a building's girders and other structural elements, and he wondered if there were wind and other musical possibilities, too. It just so happened that he had an organ in his studio that was no longer suited for professional playing, so they gave the project a go. When the installation proved a big success in Stockholm, he wanted to repeat it in New York.
Mr. Byrne had been introduced to Mr. Aman by Creative Time, the arts presenting and commissioning organization, which had worked with the musician on a 2002 installation in the Winter Garden that celebrated the reopening of the World Financial Center near Ground Zero. In 2006, Creative Time began working with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to find a space that would be accessible and accommodating to Mr. Byrne's latest sonic experiment. The Battery Maritime Building — which has been vacant for decades and boasts cast-iron beams, abundant girders and numerous pipes — was the perfect host for the project.
The organ sits at the foot of a large skylight, so on a sunny day it is as if a natural spotlight falls on the instrument. On the Friday afternoon when I sat at the organ, I was initially surprised to feel anxieties flood back from childhood piano lessons 40 years ago. Then I faced the momentary confusion of my left hand wondering where the "a-s-d-f" of the computer keyboard had wandered off to. The keys on the left-hand side trigger a low rumbling from motors attached to the girders, which made a low bass-like sound. The middle keys create flute-like sounds from air being blown through the pipes (holes were drilled into them to vary the timbres). Touching the keys on the far-right-hand side causes the beams to be struck with small mallets, producing high-pitched, percussive sounds. My mind filled with snippets of familiar songs I should try to create.
The next morning, during the press reception, a musically talented scribe recreated the opening salvo of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and another used the beams to mimic the theme from "Mission Impossible." Whether in my hands or in others', the building was best when left to its own vernacular of sound. The pipes, beams and girders combined for a fascinating sonic collage that maintained its influence on my ears even after I went outside and the indoor sounds were replaced by those of car horns and motors and the chatter of pedestrians talking on their cellphones.
"Sound is one of the most underconsidered aspects of urban life," said Anne Pasternak, executive director of Creative Time, when asked what drew her to Mr. Byrne's work. "There's such an onslaught of it. People begin to tune out."
Music, too, is becoming ubiquitous, and that fact provided some of the impetus to Mr. Byrne's sonic installations. He said that he wanted people to become more sensitive to the sounds around them and to change their relationship to music. "I don't want the public to be passive consumers of culture; you have to participate [at the building] to make sounds."
The other issue is authorship. Mr. Byrne is adamant that it's not his music that is being heard at the Battery Maritime Museum. "The person who plays the organ is the author of the music. I am not the author of what they play any more than Les Paul is the author of a million guitar solos."