July 17, 2008  |  Uncategorized

The world is David Byrne’s instrument…

Talking Heads founder DAVID BYRNE has had one of the most varied and original careers in rock, constantly vacillating between the worlds of music and visual art with rare grace. Throwing yet another curveball through the rarified air of NYC’s art world, Byrne presents music as art in “Playing the Building,” his new CREATIVE TIME-sponsored 9,000-square-foot, interactive, site-specific installation that transforms the interior of the landmark Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan into a massive sound sculpture that all visitors are invited to sit and “play.” Consisting of a retrofitted antique organ placed in the center of the building’s cavernous second-floor gallery that controls a series of devices attached to its structural features—metal beams, plumbing, electrical conduits, and heating and water pipes—these machines vibrate, strike, and blow across the building’s elements, triggering unique harmonics and producing finely tuned sounds. Open to the public through August 24th, it’s definitely an experience that must be had firsthand to believe. Shedding some light on the methods to the artist’s madness is the show’s curator, ANNE PASTERNAK, who talks at length with Byrne in the following interview. READ ON:



Anne Pasternak: How did the idea for this work evolve?
A few years ago I was invited to do an exhibition at a place called Färgfabriken in Stockholm, a Kunsthalle in a former factory. I went and looked at the space and later made a menu of proposals that ranged from conventional stuff on walls to a giant microwave oven to a facial recognition software piece to the project that got presented, Playing The Building. Being an old factory, Färgfabriken has the typical physical structure of that kind of architecture—metal supports for the roof, plumbing and, in this case, cast metal columns for support. I had an idea that these typical parts of buildings could be used to produce (interesting) sounds. Everyone is familiar with the fact that if you rap on a metal column, for example, you will hear a ping or a clang, but I wondered if the pipes could be turned into giant flutes, and if a machine could make some of the girders vibrate and produce tones. After thinking about how girders vibrate when a truck or a train goes over a metal bridge, it seemed just a matter of working out the mechanics of playing a building. Jan Aman, the director of Färgfabriken liked this idea best, or it seemed the most feasible to him, so I proceeded to see what might be involved, and did some research back in New York with my team. I discovered 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 that I’d inherited from Jean-Yves Noblet’s former print studio. It worked well enough as an organ but it’s tuning was slightly off from 440, so it wasn’t destined for a recording studio. I realized that its antique body and keyboard would make the perfect controller for this piece—it would emphasize the Victorian Steam-Punk technology at work here, and the simplicity of the completely mechanical acoustic piece. 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.


What was the experience once the organ was installed? Were there any surprises for you?
Well to be slightly immodest, I was surprised at how successful it was, especially socially. The Swedish public of all ages had no trepidation about playing the thing, and those waiting their turn wandered around the space to see how the sounds were being made. Some of the amateurs got quite into it and were applauded after their short performances. It became a kind of social apparatus as well as being an installation. It became a shared communal experience—which was very moving for me to witness.


I was impressed recently with a quote from Alvin Lucier that stated, “Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen.” Does this sentiment play a role in your approach to Playing the Building?
This piece makes the act of “careful listening” incredibly easy. There’s almost no effort involved except going to the space. One doesn’t have the same experience when reading a description of it—one has to be physically present to really listen.


I find it really interesting to consider that humans are exposed to more sounds than ever before. With this project, you seem to advocate that people pay attention to the sounds inherent in everyday surroundings and materials. Why?
I’d like to say that in a small way it turns consumers into creative producers, but that might be a bit too much to claim. However even if one doesn’t play the thing, it points toward a less mediated kind of cultural experience. It might be an experience in which one begins to reexamine one’s surroundings and realize that culture—of which sound and music are parts—doesn’t always have to be produced by professionals and packaged in a consumable form. I’m not suggesting people abandon musical instruments and start playing their cars and apartments, but I do think the reign of music as a commodity made only by professionals might be winding down. The imminent demise of the large record companies as gatekeepers of the world’s popular music is a good thing, for the most part.


With Playing the Building, you seem to imply that everyone can take center stage, perform, and compose with their everyday surroundings.
I’m not advocating a kind of “Wiki” world of culture; but I guess I am advocating less separation between cultural producers (the artists, writers, musicians, dancers, singers) and cultural consumers.


New technologies make it easy for anyone to be a “musician” or “composer.” Though he criticized the authority of the composer, I suspect John Cage would cringe at how music is being produced with off-the-shelf composing software. Those programs don’t allow for real experimentation with sound.
I think there is far too much music everywhere. I don’t mean music in the John Cage sense of car horns and cell phones ringing: I mean recorded music. I find it hard to concentrate on a conversation when there’s music playing in a bar, club, or office. I understand why it’s there, but it turns music into a space filler. Sometimes I wonder if Cage, and others, really wanted to challenge authorship as much as wanting to shift it to the curator. By setting up a situation or system by which a machine or anonymous people produce the music or art, the person who sets up the situation becomes the author. I like exploring the idea that pretty much anyone can be a writer, artist, or musician if they want to. It’s essential to me that this piece is to be played by people of all ages and abilities. Artists, musicians, kids, and grandmas. It’s not art or music that is presented to you, played by experts for you to simply consume. There’s nothing to consume—you have to make it yourself.


Cage also talked about his passion for the entire range of sound. Playing the Building zeroes in on the sounds we tune out, take for granted, or never even notice. Why did you want to emphasize the invisible acoustic qualities of architectural sound?
My favorite acoustics at the moment are the many varieties of incessant electronic chatter that surround us. I sometimes sing along with these sounds—though I’m not always aware that I’m doing so. I remember driving around Iceland and whenever we stopped and I took a picture the camera would go bleep-doop-bleep and I would unconsciously mimic these sounds, quietly, almost under my breath, as well as the car warning beeps, door chirps, and odd cell phone rings. My travel companion asked me if I often talk to machines. I guess I do.


It seems to me this piece has a fundamental relationship with the idea of “ambient music”—a term coined by one of your collaborators, Brian Eno. He shares your fascination with focusing attention on the sound qualities of space. However Playing the Building seems to have some dramatic distinctions from his practice, as you maximize our sensitivity to the “background” noise, highlighting the nuance and quirks of space. Would you illuminate us on this?
Brian has also been fascinated by self-generating and somewhat authorless music and art. Though Playing the Building is authorless, it’s strongly directed, so the results usually end up within set parameters. It takes a specific kind of system to generate interesting things—and not devolve into a random free-for-all. The Bush Of Ghosts record we did years ago upset some people partly because we, as the work’s authors, didn’t use or speak in our own voices. It was early days for that kind of thing, but we were essentially curators of the sounds and voices and the authorship lay there, not in the actual vocals. Now those techniques are so common as to be banal and not even worth commenting on. The idea that the artist’s hand must be evident and visible isn’t as crucial anymore. 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.


Most of what people would think of as your “visual art” practice has nothing to do with sound.
To be honest for years I tended to segregate my artwork from my music work. I had good reasons to do so. Early reactions to my visual work tended to be couched in “rock star makes art!” sort of terms, so any serious intent in the art got steamrolled by the baggage I carry—at least in many people’s minds. Lately though, I’ve stopped worrying about such nonsense and now I feel freer to mix sound and image when appropriate. It’s a big relief. The fact that my PowerPoint “films” are set to music is irrelevant for most who see them, which is fine by me.


You often choose to create art through popular (a.k.a. “low”) culture. Why is that?
That’s partly due to my upbringing. I was taught that elitism is bad, and though I’m not sure I believe anymore that all bits of specialized knowledge or appreciation are bad, I realize this pushes me to democratize what I do. So I often make things out of low, or at least not luxe or precious, materials (like pop music, PowerPoint, an old organ, and empty buildings) that are accessible and approachable to all sorts of people.


I’m curious what you think about the massive globalization of the art world and its markets right now?
The art world is having quite the seizure right now, eh? As someone who is a fan and sometime participant I see two things happening simultaneously. I see art becoming mainly a status item, quality baubles for the moneyed set, and at the same time I see it becoming more generally popular. There is more truly interesting and incredible work being produced than ever before. The two (or was that three?) things are probably related—the Venn diagram would show them overlapping too. It’s a weird moment. I often find that I am excited, inspired, and cynical all at the same time.

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