David Byrne’s building about music, and chimes

Do-it-yourself public sound installations are serendipitous surprises: Former Talking Head David Byrne wired the Battery Maritime Building to emphasize its haunted house groans and creaks, and it’s further improved by human agency. A few hundred yards away, chimes are planted amidst the shrubbery. Leap on them.

“Playing the Building,” an ingenious installation by the man who sang “Psycho Killer, qu’est qe c’est?”, triggers whooshes, clanks, buzzes and such with the keys of an old organ which sits in the center of a large, high-ceilinged room of an otherwise empty old port structrure. It will be in place through August 24, open basically during business hours. When I attended on a rainy Saturday after “Playing the Building” had just been opened, a line of would-be Byrne collaborators was waiting to explore what the keyboard could make the room do. It could have taken half an hour or more to explore and connect particular keys and stop-settngs to the sounds they started, and no one had the moxie to command so much the time, so the result was everybody dabbled and nothing could be planned (or “composed”).

I had a simple flute with me, though, and found that by playing discrete sounds that imitated the pitches the building was giving up, or its timbres or rhythmic clicks, I could make connections among the seemingly random blurts and warm the room up. I wasn’t playing tunes and I wasn’t playing loudly, just standing off to the side. The docents didn’t mind. Everybody was smiling. 

When I left the Battery Maritime Building, I wandered north past the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, into the south cove of Battery Park. I sat on a bench for a while, blowing flute mindlessly at seagulls, until I heard metallic tinkling not very far away. I could see kids playing, but no musical instruments.

After a bit, the children and their guardians left. I walked to where they’d gathered. There, in the ground, was a grid of nine bronze plates that seemed to be attached on springs to soundmakers under them. Jump on a grid plate, bang a gong. The pitches were tuned and their tone was mellow. I jumped up and down on them, hopscotch-like, for a while, then tried playing my flute while hopping about on the slabs, but proved pretty clumsy at this, and I’ve vowed to return to try again. I forgot to jot down the sound sculpture’s name or its creator, I can’t find a reference to this permanent piece in any Battery Park website — so I guess I have to go back. Soon. 

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  1. says

    I am a music lover and I know how to play guitar. I have always wanted to learn how to play a flute but after months of practice and learning, I decided I better stick to guitars.
    That is why I admire people like you who play flute. I envy you actually and from the sound of your article, You seemed to have a very good time doing hopscotch and at the same time making those beautiful sounds.
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience.
    HM: Thanks for your nice note. I’m not even passable on air guitar.

  2. says

    That’s pretty interesting. At first I didn’t quite catch it, but now I see what the purpose is. Its a great exploration in aural exercise too. Really gets you to listen to the music that is everywhere, and not just in man-made instruments. I can’t help but make music even when I am just making a sandwich. I like to try out different types of percussion with things around the house.