'Playing the Building': A musical interactive exhibit created by David Byrne

David Byrne, from Talking Heads, showcases an exhibit in New York that takes music-making to another level.


The public-art organization Creative Time unveiled an interactive exhibit called "Playing the Building"--a 9,000-square-foot, site-specific installation by renowned artist David Byrne (lead/founder of retro-pop group Talking Heads).

What once served as a soaring waiting room for passengers to board ferries bound for South Brooklyn until 1938, the Battery Maritime Building in lower Manhattan was transformed into a massive sound sculpture for which all visitors are invited to sit and "play." The project consists of a retro-fitted antique organ in which the innards are replaced with relays, wires, and light-blue air hoses, and placed in the center of the building's cavernous second-floor gallery. The organ is fitted with several motors, which produce the bass sounds by vibrating a set of girders that once supported a stained-glass skylight in the 40-foot-high ceiling. The organ is attached to a pump that blows air through a tangle of hoses. These hoses snake into the huge room's old water and heating pipes and conduits, making primitive flute sounds. And then there are more than a dozen spring-loaded solenoids, attached to the columns and even to a huge radiator that emits a surprisingly sonorous tone when struck in just the right place with a metal rod. The activations are of three types: wind, vibration, and striking. The devices do not produce sound themselves, but they cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate, and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument.

The organ is sectioned off showing what keys will trigger what: 11 keys will trigger hammers that clang against cast-iron columns and pipes; five will jump-start motors that make the ceiling beams vibrate and hum; and 12 will shoot blasts of air through pipes.

Scratching your head yet? Here's a video of the contraption in action:

The exhibit is open every weekend, from noon to 6 p.m., till August 10, and admission is free.

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