David Byrne Makes New York Building Sing Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne has made New York's Battery Maritime Building sing — literally. The once-busy ferry terminal was fitted with wires, hoses and solenoids. This isn't Byrne's exercise in being arty. Anyone can play the building.
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David Byrne Makes New York Building Sing

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David Byrne Makes New York Building Sing

David Byrne Makes New York Building Sing

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Here's an odd concept: playing a building as a musical instrument. It's not a brand-new idea. In 2004, a group in Berlin performed music on the remains of the former East German parliament building. Now, David Byrne, best known for the band Talking Heads, has expanded on this idea. He's transformed a New York City building into an instrument that anyone can play, as NPR's Margot Adler reports.

(Soundbite of music)

MARGOT ADLER: I'm sitting in front of a very simple 19th century wooden organ that David Byrne bought secondhand for about $200. The organ sits in the center of a huge room in an old beaux-arts building built in 1909. I'm pressing the keys and sound is coming out, but how exactly?

Anne Pasternak is president of Creative Time, the nonprofit arts organization, and she's the curator of this installation. She says when Byrne thought about doing this piece, he needed an old building.

Ms. ANNE PASTERNAK (President, Creative Time): Today, we go into any brand-new building, you don't see the columns, you don't see the pipes, you don't see the radiators, you know, you don't see the girders. But he loves, you know, that kind of idea that you're sitting in your office or your apartment and the heating units are coming on in the fall and the - there's water in the pipes and they start to bang off. And that those kinds of infrastructure sounds we try to tune out, he wanted to make those inherent sounds in architecture more present, but you need an exposed infrastructure to do that. So here we are at the Battery Maritime Building, and you have exposed beautiful columns and pipes and radiators and steel girders with the skylights.

ADLER: The Battery Maritime Building was once a busy ferry terminal. To play it, Byrne removed the back of this organ I've been playing. He attached some mechanisms to the keys and then attached wires and hoses to the mechanisms, which attached to parts of the building. Byrne explained how it works at a news conference.

Mr. DAVID BYRNE (Musician): I realized that you could attach motors to these girders that are way, way up top. And the motors vibrate the girders, and you get notes. I realized you could blow air through these little hoses into the plumbing that, well, a lot of buildings from this period still have along the walls, and you can get some pretty nice sounds out of that. And I also realized that by striking other elements of the building, these cast-iron columns or the radiators or some of the larger plumbing fixtures, you can get more kind of percussive effects like these.

ADLER: As you sit down to play the organ, it says pillars on the left and pipes in the center and motors on the right. But I'm still confused. You can see blue tubes leading from the back of the organ to the pipes, and there are holes in the pipes to give the flute effect. And I can see the yellow wires going up to the steel girders that activate the motors. And then there are these magnets called solenoids that drive a steel bar into the columns, and you can hear them (unintelligible).

David Byrne has never played the building publicly, and that's apparently on purpose, says Anne Pasternak of Creative Time.

Ms. PASTERNAK: He hasn't played it for me. He hasn't played it for a private event.

ADLER: Has he played it himself?

Ms. PASTERNAK: He tuned the building, so he had to do those kinds of things. And perhaps he's played it when nobody else is around, but he didn't want to give up the idea that somebody can play it better than anybody else. He's a very kind of populist, democratic guy, and he wanted to make sure that everybody was center stage.

ADLER: So I went back down to the Battery Maritime Building to see it on a busy weekend afternoon. There were people lined up waiting to take their turn. Here are Matt Chamoff(ph) and Jared Goldstein(ph).

Mr. MATT CHAMOFF: It started out where I wanted to figure out what each different key did and how it sounded. And then at the end, I just wanted to be like a little kid and push them all at the same time.

Mr. JARED GOLDSTEIN: It was really good. I felt like I was part of the building and the space.

ADLER: I confess it was more satisfying to play it alone, to daydream and let my hands trail along the keys. Anyone can play the building all through the summer.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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