LA and San Francisco may be offering a lot of really good free entertainment this summer, but New York City tops both of them with a richly varied, non-stop offering of entertainment to choose from all summer long: much of it stuff that you would happily pay to see, from great concerts to cool exhibits. Topping this list is David Byrne's Playing The Building (Friday, Saturday, Sunday Noon to 6PM) at the Battery Maritime Building (10 South St.), which has been extended through August 24th. If you are making a visit to NYC by then, make time in your schedule to include this hands-on sound exhibit.
As explained by the former Talking Heads member in the video below, the idea for this unique installation came about after he realized that you "could turn the space into a musical instrument by attaching machines to the various parts of the structure." In conjunction with the wonderful NYC arts group Creative Time, who specialize in transforming soon to be demolished or restructured old city buildings into cool art spaces for their final days, Byrne took over this lower Manhattan decades-abandoned ferry terminal (soon to be remodeled) and turned it into a giant musical instrument.
Byrne and company painstakingly created this giant musical instrument by hooking up a series of sound-generating gizmos, strategically positioned throughout the empty cavernous old ferry building, and connecting them, via long cables, draped down and across the ceiling and back down to the keys on an old organ (the only thing on display in the otherwise completely empty building), which in turn causes the whole building to vibrate and resonate into a myriad of hypnotic noises/sounds. Fun!
The non-musical (in the traditional sense of the word) industrial sounds generated when hitting the keys on the beautiful old wooden organ are divided into three distinct types: vibration, wind, and striking. And these types collectively range in various sounds from a slow mechanical groan (best to hold your finger on the organ key to maintain this effect, I found) emanating from the tall skylight space down the far end of this long building (once used to house passengers waiting for a ferry home to Brooklyn), to the pounding of a metal beam or pillar high above, to the tapping sound inside a heating pipe on the wall to the right of the organ, or the almost flute like blowing of a long narrow copper pipe (as outlined by Byrne in the video clip of the installation below).
Behind a sign painted on the floor that invites visitors to "PLEASE PLAY," exhibit-goers line up for their turn to sit down at the organ to tap out the keys' connected to the building's various industrial sounds. When the exhibit first opened last month (and when the video above was shot) the lines to get on the organ were long (meaning an hour or more of a wait) and snaked throughout the building, but when my friend and I attended over the weekend the wait time was short: only about 8 to 10 minutes.
Even without prompting no one hogged the instrument for longer than a minute or two. Everyone, including the little girl ahead of us (pictured at top), assimilated to the instrument instantly and the fact that a spotlight shines down on the organ and its player made each attendee's unrehearsed hands-on performance seem like an official recital, with many players, including that little girl, generating a loud applause.
Should you make it to the exhibit, be sure to pick up a cool souvenir poster of the installation for just a dollar on the way out of Maritime Building. It's a large two-sided color poster with an image of the installation on one side and a detailed description of it on the other. For someone like me, a big fan of sampling urban found sounds, getting to play this unique organ was a real treat and I recommend you do the same if you are around NYC before August 24th.
For more information visit either David Byrne's site or Creative Time's.