David Byrne's Musical Room


David Byrne's installation "Playing the Building" is literally that. He has turned a Victorian roundhouse into a giant musical instrument. An old pump organ is in the middle of the room and when played sounds are created by the building itself.

To do this various bits of cable and wire are run from the back of a recycled organ to parts of the building's pillars and beams and pipes. "Playing" the organ keys makes rattles and pings and noises that resonate in the huge space with its soaring ceiling and and old Victorian metal columns.

The whole thing works because the machines produce sound through wind, vibration and striking. There is no sound on its own, and no amplification, instead the organ itself causes the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate. As Byrne says " It's old fashioned. It's not electronic, it's electric. It's all air pressure and wires."

It's quite wonderful to play the organ in this glorious space. In fact the black keys don't work; rather it is through pumping the pedals and pressing the white keys that uncontrollable noises fill the massive room. Apparently there are 40 potential sounds that someone can play.

Byrne says:

" I think what's nice about it is that it takes away any advantage that a trained musician has. It brings everyone to a level playing field. A great musician sitting down to play it would be at the same level as a kid."

Several times over the next month informal jam sessions will take place which will be very special. No word whether Byrne himself will attend.

It's been done before; first in Stockholm, Sweden in 2005 and then in New York at the Battery Maritime Building in 2008.

The building itself is a wonder. It started as a steam engine repair shed for the railways in 1847 and in the 60's became a legend--groups such as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Sinceros, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Incredible String Band, The Doors with Jefferson Airplane, Elkie Brooks and Motörhead played there. Then in 1976 the first UK appearance of The Ramones,took place which kicked off punk rock in the UK.

It was refurbished completely in 2006 and reopened last year. : Playing the Building
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