Saturday, August 23, 2008

Last Weekend for Playing the Building

As you might've guessed from the header, you've got only two more afternoons to visit and participate in David Byrne's Playing the Building. I finally took the plunge yesterday accompanied by the wonderful Deborah Grumet and her two wonderful daughters.

For Playing the Building, Byrne wired an organ keyboard to a bunch of sound-making devices spaced apart within a large, decrepit room of the old Battery Maritime Building (conveniently located near the Governors Island ferry). Visitors who sign a waiver can enter the edifice, play the instrument, and listen to others play the instrument.

What I liked best about the experience was going inside the building and taking in the external and internal views: dormant gangways, peeling paint, shadowed corridors, doors to nowhere, still-attractive glasswork above, mysterious basketball markings on one portion of the floor.

I also liked the musical element, but it left something to be desired. Byrne's contraption enables participants to produce at least three types of sound: keys to the left of the participant produce soft "bass" sounds from overhead motors; keys in the center produce hoarse, higher-pitched pipe sounds; keys to the right produce crisp clanking. The best place to hear the sounds is, I believe, in the center of the room, but the organ is perhaps a quarter or a third of the way in. So if you're performing on the organ, it's harder than it ought to be to hear many of the sounds and fully appreciate the surround-sound effect one gets from being centrally located. Compounding this problem is the fact that the line to participate is between the entryway and the organ (at least it was when we were there), so that one has to be off the line and off the organ to "hear the room" to its best advantage.

People tended to play the pipes and motors, producing eery hums and whistles, but I wanted to try using the pipes and motors as drones while producing kinetic rhythms using the right side of the keyboard, an approach that might work best with more than person at the keyboard so that one person could work the rhythms while another worked the drones. For something more elaborate than that, one could try to get people to sing and/or contribute other sounds from other places in the room.

I think very highly of Byrne, but I still wonder how others might rig up the building. Given enough time, I could probably come up with a bunch of names...but at the moment the one that suggests itself is Peter Schickele, a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach. I think he'd have a field day building on the concept with humor as well as musicality. And he might be good at suggesting others who'd be good at playing with it.

Here's some guy at the organ.

Here's the wiring at the back of the organ. Looks like Byrne's Science Fair Project.

Here's the wiring that extends to the skylight.

And here's a video about the project. The sound of the music on the video is more "present" (less faint) than what I heard most of the time when I was there. Stay tuned to the video to see other parts of the building that are harder to access.

Source (10:12)

Photos: David Marc Fischer

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