Building Music With David Byrne

David Byrne has written many songs about buildings and food, but now he has converted an entire building into a musical instrument. His latest installation allows the public to perform on the Battery Maritime Building in New York…

Make Room For Music

Byrne’s ‘Playing the Building‘ exhibition was previously implemented in Stockholm in 2005. The installation in NY will run from 31st May to 10th August.

The idea is that members of the public can come in and play the building itself, which has been modified with interface devices that cause the infrastructure to produce sound. This allows people to play on the water pipes, metal beams, support pillars and heating pipes:

The activations are of three types: wind, vibration, striking. The devices do not produce sound themselves, but they cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument.

“Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen”

Playing the Building

This quote by Alvin Lucier is very relevant to the building project; there is no amplification or electronic processing on the sounds produced, and it encourages (in fact, depends on) the audience to participate. Byrne seems to echo some of Brian Eno’s musings when he talks about a “less mediated kind of cultural experience” where the divide between the consumer and producer of music tends towards zero.

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.

I’m not sure this will ever be the case – most people are not musicians, and although they may participate in events like this, and gain a great deal of enjoyment, insight and benefit from it, being a musician requires dedication and application over the long term – something that is fuelled by a desire from within. However, we are all musical beings, and this should be encouraged wherever possible.

Filtering A World Of Abundant Music

Byrne seems to be in two minds about the lowering cost of music production (see Laurence Trifon ‘s recent post); on the one hand, it is good that artists can now create high-quality recordings using only a laptop and software – doing things that would have cost thousands of pounds in a studio even ten years ago. However, he also criticises ‘off the shelf’ production software – “those programs don’t allow for real experimentation with sound.”

Essentially, what is happening is that the filter has moved; roughly the same proportion of people are inclined to make music as was the case ten or twenty years ago. However, back then the first strong filter was at the equipment stage; only fairly serious or successful acts could afford to get as far as a studio. Now, everyone can get as far as the studio ‘in the box’, and the amount of home-produced music recordings has increased exponentially. Furthermore, the Internet allows instant worldwide distribution of such music.

Unfortunately, the proportion of ‘quality’ music has probably remained the same, or even declined. What we need now are more sophisticated filtering systems at the listening stage, so that we are not overwhelmed by choice and forced to wade through hours of unwanted music.

Hopefully, projects like Byrne’s will illustrate that there is more to music (and the art of sound) than simply filling in the spaces between kick and hi-hat…


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