Playing Music with Architecture: the Battery Maritime Building

Battery Maritime Building

We’ve all heard the saying: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” But why not dance about architecture? And why not play music on architecture, as composer David Byrne does? In a fascinating piece about Playing the Building, An Installation by David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman is interviewed by Anne Pasternak. The venue in question is the Battery Maritime Building in New York City. It will be open this summer, and full details can be found in the press release.

The building was chosen, in part, because it looks right. The separate elements of it are in plain sight, making it easier for the brain to correlate the ways in which sound is made, with the sound itself. The building itself is a gargantuan musical instrument whose component parts are not fretboard, bridge, string, or skin, but pipes, pillars and beams. Though Byrne is perhaps the first to play music on an entire building, others have made music with parts of buildings. What causes the parts of the building to make noise? Striking, vibration, and wind. Pipes can become giant flutes. Byrne talks about how he saw that

…some of the arrangements for mounting the machines on the parts of the building would have to be fabricated, but most of the other materials could be obtained off the shelf. I happened to have an old pump organ in my studio… There are no microphones, no amplification, and none of the sounds are synthesized or altered electronically. The organ keyboard basically serves as a series of switches at the back of the organ, which is left open so people can see the workings.

Everything is controlled from the old organ. Playing the Building is an interactive installation, where the visitor can be the maestro and create strange music in real time. With the help of the random humans who show up to participate, art becomes “self-generating.” Byrne describes how some experimental musicians (members of the public) are applauded for their performances. He likes the quality of communal shared experience that is generated, and the fact that art is not an elitist possession but a thing shared by everyone. He advocates the end of separation between the “producers” of culture and its “consumers.” With an art event such as this one, nothing exists to consume. The visitor brings something to it, and gets something from it, but there is no question of a plastic bag or a paper bag, because there is nothing to take away except for the experience itself.

Pasternak (who, as well as interviewer, is also curator of the installation) speaks of the convergence of the auditory and the visual with the sense of touch inherent in this unusual project, which has to do with “highlighting the nuance and quirks of space.”

This is not Byrne’s first project of the kind. The previous one took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 2005. From this and other experiences, he concludes that,

As far as space goes, I sense that different architectural spaces “want” to have specific kinds of sounds inside them. The space creates a hole for sounds to fill, psychologically and physically – but only specific sorts of sounds seem to “fit” in each kind of space…The inherent acoustics of a room have far-reaching effects: they make you walk different and talk different. They make you feel different.

The study of acoustics in buildings doesn’t only apply to fanciful art installations, of course, but has a great deal of importance in all buildings. The relationship between the space and the sounds that fill it flows both ways, of course. For instance, in Architectural Graphic Standards, 11th Edition, we learn that

Acoustical ceilings are large visual elements within a space, and so are considered design elements as well as acoustical features.

So, what next? Buildings that are intentionally made with an eye to (actually, an ear to) the possibility of their being played like musical instruments in some future day?

SOURCE: ” Playing the Building ” No date given
photo courtesy of nautical2k , used under this Creative Commons license

0 Responses to “Playing Music with Architecture: the Battery Maritime Building”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: