Visual Arts

Rock savant turns abandoned Manhattan building into a musical statement

Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

NEW YORK - "OK, how about 'Living on a Prayer'?" the young man asked his friend as they sat down at the beat-up organ to play a duet.

The sounds that filled the cavernous hall in lower Manhattan bore precisely zero resemblance to the Bon Jovi rock anthem. That was not because the two men didn't appear to know the music. It was because every time they pressed a key, a whistling or pinging or knocking or low wheezing sound issued forth from a different part of the space.

They weren't playing an organ. They were playing the building.

"Playing the Building" is the apt name of this temporary sound installation by David Byrne, the singer-songwriter who led the Talking Heads in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Since opening at the end of May, more than 10,000 people have trekked to a long-abandoned ferry building at the southern tip of Manhattan and stood in line to wait for their turn at the organ.

The instrument's keyboard is hooked up to a series of switches that are mounted inside the organ, whose wooden back has been replaced with sheet of plexiglass so its innards are visible. From the back, wires and air tubes snake upward and outward toward the building's columns, pipes, girders and radiators. Using magnets, springs, electric motors, plastic tubing and metal bars, Bryne has turned the former ferry waiting room into a giant instrument for producing what might be called architectural music.

It gives new meaning to the phrase "wall of sound."

Byrne's partner in "Playing the Building" is Creative Time, a New York non-profit organization that finds unique ways to make statements in the city's urban spaces, such as "Tribute in Light," the twin beams of light that have replicated the fallen World Trade Center towers on many of the anniversaries of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Everyone is familiar with the fact that if you rap on a metal column, you will hear a ping or a clang," Byrne said in a published interview with Creative Time president Anne Pasternak. "But I wondered if the pipes could be turned into giant flutes, and if a machine could make some of the girders vibrate and produce tones."

The idea came to Byrne, who has pursued a career as a painter and visual artist as well as a musician, when a Swedish art gallery asked him for proposals to do something unique with an old Stockholm factory. Among other notions, including turning the factory into a giant microwave oven, was "Playing the Building."

"I like exploring the idea that pretty much anyone can be a writer, artist, or musician if they want to," Byrne told Pasternak. "It's essential to me that this piece is to be played by people of all ages and abilities. ... It's not art or music that is presented to you, played by experts for you to simply consume. There's nothing to consume. You have to make it yourself."

Pasternak said that the biggest challenge in transferring the idea from Stockholm to New York was finding a suitable location. With New York in the midst of a construction boom, old buildings do not sit empty for long here. And a contemporary building didn't seem promising.

"Contemporary buildings are made of sheet rock," said Pasternak. "It probably wouldn't be interesting to play sheet rock. We had to find a place with a lot of exposed architectural infrastructure."

The Battery Maritime Building fit the bill. Built in 1909 as the Manhattan terminal for an East River ferry that carried passengers to Brooklyn, the Beaux Arts building has not been used since 1938, when the ferry shut down. Declared a landmark in 1967, it is owned by the city.

With peeling paint, cast-iron Corinthian columns, and a stark skylight that once held panes of stained glass, the former waiting room not only provides plenty of opportunities for noise-making but also exudes a hip atmosphere of urban decay.

Although several of the organ keys control electric devices that strike girders or other metal pieces, most of the sounds are produced by air currents blowing across openings that have been drilled in the hall's disused water pipes and conduits, producing flute-like noises.

Pasternak estimated that "Playing the Building," which is free, cost less than $100,000 to install.

"I think what's really great about the piece is that it encourages us to experience our surroundings anew," she said. "And to recognize the potential for music in everything we do. I think that's a really beautiful concept."

After the two men finished what may or may not have been their radiator-and-water-pipe version of "Living on a Prayer," which ended with one final, gasping note, one of the men compared Byrne's idea to the way skateboarders use common parts of building, such as handrails, to perform jumps and stunts.

"People walk by those railings every day, not realizing they could be used for that," said Tony Tomko, a Philadelphia videographer. "It's the same thing here. This space could be filled with desks, with people working here every day. Instead, it's being used to make music."

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