Playing the Building
July 5, 2008, 3:30pm. Playing the Building is an auditory installation by David Byrne at the Battery Maritime Building in lower Manhattan, running through August 2008. It involves an old organ console placed in the middle of a semi-abandoned ferry terminal with various actuators hooked up throughout the building. The structure itself -- its pipes, columns, and so on -- makes the actual sound, under the control of whoever is at the console. You can read more about it at www.davidbyrne.com/art/art_projects/playing_the_building/...
Anyone can go in and play the building for a few minutes at a time. There's no way to meaningfully prepare ahead of time or directly apply expertise with another instrument; the only way to make sound is to experiment. So every performance by a visitor is by necessity an at least somewhat playful exploration. (There are apparently also occasional scheduled performances by musicians who've actually rehearsed with the contraption, but there wasn't one while I was there yesterday).
The result is surprisingly successful at blurring the distinctions between performer and audience, professional and amateur, work and play, signal and noise. An almost incidental side effect is interesting, and occasionally hauntingly beautiful, ambient music. It reminded me of the early field recordings of the late Tony Schwartz (a terrific body of work I only recently discovered through his obituary on WNYC's "On the Media").
Given the nature of the piece, it was a bit incongruous to see almost everyone taking pictures of the console and the space, but hardly anyone recording the sound itself, at least while I was there. Presumably this has something to do with relative ubiquity of small cameras versus small audio recorders, but I suspect there's more to it than that. The commercial and artistic establishment routinely prohibits "amateur" recording in "professional" performance spaces, and we've become conditioned to assume that that's just the natural order of things. (We're also expected to automatically consent to being recorded ourselves while in those same spaces.) Amateur documentary field recording seems in danger of withering away even as the technology to do it becomes cheaper, better and more available. In fifty years will we have any way to find out what daily life in the early part of this century really sounded like?