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After Work: Playing The Building

...Creative Time and David Byrne of Talking Heads fame have teamed up to turn this 99-year-old Beaux Arts building into a 9,000-square foot musical instrument. Motors are strapped to girders, clackers and clangers are affixed to columns and radiators and air is forced through old pipes.

Visitors are invited to sit down at an old retrofitted pump organ and play...

Wow! Who wouldn't want a go?

The imperturbable Dona Gibbs goes where few musicians have ever trodden (blown? plucked? bowed?) before.

For more of Dona's adventerous columns please click on after work in the menu on this page.

Would you like a weekend gig making music in lower Manhattan – one where you collaborate with David Byrne and rock the house?

O.K., I’ll admit right off.. Byrne won’t be there but he’s left some signature artistry.

Visitors to a new Manhattan music installation can rock the house at “Playing the Building” at the Battery Maritime Building on South Street.

Creative Time and David Byrne of Talking Heads fame have teamed up to turn this 99-year-old Beaux Arts building into a 9,000-square foot musical instrument. Motors are strapped to girders, clackers and clangers are affixed to columns and radiators and air is forced through old pipes.

Visitors are invited to sit down at an old retrofitted pump organ and play.

What emerges is a sonorous woo reminiscent of the recording of whale songs combined with an ominous low-pitched hum. That’s laid over with the ping and clank familiar to New Yorkers in steam-heated apartments.

The do-it-yourself concert opened May 30 and continues until August 10, noon to 6 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

I jumped on the downtown subway to see and hear for myself. The subway itself was a warm-up -- a musical instrument with its own squeals, screeches and whooshes. Unlike the building, there’s no chance to control the sounds. That’s probably why so many subway veterans opt for their own music piped in through MP3 player earpieces.

This was the first time I’ve ever been asked to sign a release to enter a concert.

“The building is very old,” the woman at the desk told me.

Once the lawyers got a look at the motors mounted 40 feet up, purposely off-kilter, the yards and yards of cable and hoses plus the interior of the old waiting room, untouched since 1938 they, no doubt, gulped.

The Creative Time team checked out many buildings for the complex project. Some were too open to the street so that it would have been difficult to separate the intentional “music” from the unintentional “racket.” Others possessed potential musical qualities but were unsuitable for other reasons.

“You can use the building but no children will be allowed,” said another.

That rejected building was covered in flaking lead paint. Again, a no-go. Whole families were going to be invited to attend.

Visitors had formed a polite queue behind a “Please Play” sign painted on the concert floor. Many were families with young children. Dads seem to favor the lower end of the register – the vibrating whine of motors—while the kids liked the air pushed through pipes and moms clanked at the higher end of the keyboard. This isn’t so stereotypical once you consider the logistics of controlling kids in a huge space.

The organ was an old Weaver pump organ that an acquaintance of Byrne’s had given him. It now looked like it was on spare-no-measure life support. Its back sprouted all kind of wires and tubing. Supposedly, it can produce 40 different sounds. When my turn came, I could only discern a couple of dozen – but then I was being pushed off the bench by an impatient three-year-old girl.

David, by the way, had left the building. He has no plans to play the building in a public performance.

The Battery Maritime Building is the second building Byrne has used as an instrument. The first installation was a 2005 Stockholm, Sweden former paint factory.

Turning a building into a musical instrument is far from a new idea. Back in 2004 a German group Einsturzende Neubauten played a concert using the shell of the parliament building of the former German Democratic Republic. That was a performance by a professional group for an audience.

That event was political in nature. This event is far more, well, playful.

It should be noted that Byrne apparently has a subtext for “Playing the Building”. He grumbles about the state of disarray the musical industry finds itself – kind of it-serves-them-right take on the downturn. He is championing the building for its interactive, “authorless” music.

In “Playing the Building” there’s certainly no profit motive. The exhibit is free.

I exited onto an ornate balcony. The building itself is artwork with ships’ anchors ornately cut out of the cast iron railings. Back in the early part of the 20th century, this was a thriving terminal, serving the southern part of Brooklyn. That changed with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Plans to convert it into space for a dance company and a children museum have in recent times fallen through.

Perhaps with its brief reincarnation as a musical instrument, the building will inspire some viable plan that will continue to breathe life into this forgotten New York City treasure.

That would be beautiful music, indeed.





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