Playing to the house

Today I went with my brother to see David Byrne’s art-work Playing the Building, in which he wires up the old Battery Maritime Building in downtown Manhattan to an antique electric organ, so that visitors can create sounds throughout the cavernous space by playing notes on the keyboard.

David Byrne’s organ within its musical web

Of course I liked the idea – turning an entire building into a musical instrument – but the execution left me cold. It felt as though he didn’t mean it. The keys were hooked up to essentially random pitches, so you couldn’t really play anything creative or aesthetically communicative. I felt as though I were seeing the illusion of audience participation, without any belief on the part of David Byrne that a true collaboration with the audience is possible – or even desirable.

The idea of turning ambient architectural space into giant immersive musical instruments has been explored by others. One of my favourite practitioners of this wonderful and arcane art is the LEMUR group (League of Musical Urban Robots). Their work often involves placing robotically actuated instruments about a room, on walls and ceilings, so that concerts come at you from all directions in orchestrated robotic cocaphony.

Two remotely actuated LEMUR drums on the ceiling

These various experiments are intriguing, and yet it’s hard not to feel cheated. Neither Byrne’s work nor LEMUR’s truly empowers the observer/participant. All day today I could not shake the feeling, a kind of nagging memory in an obscure part of my brain, that I had once glimpsed the promised land: A living space that you yourself could play, a true participatory musical architecture. The very walls could come alive under your touch, and through music you would become one with the architectural space around you.

And then, all at once, I had it. A memory dating from my childhood, when I first saw Grumpy play the pipe organ in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. If you’ve ever seen this film you’ll know what I’m talking about. The pipe organ did not merely produce sounds. It came alive, its pipes dancing and singing under the control of Grumpy’s magical hands.

Grumpy’s pipe organ

I remembered that when I saw that, I wanted to become one with that pipe organ, that house, just the way Grumpy was. For me it was a vision of the way architecture is supposed to be – a living extension of your inner self, responsive to your touch, the very environment around you reflecting the beauty you feel within your soul.

Is that asking too much?

One thought on “Playing to the house”

  1. I went to the Salt Palace Convention Center for an NCTM meeting several years ago and each door in the round tower entrance stuck a particular note as it was opened. When a crowd came in or out, it made a din, but you could also get your friends to work together to play a melody.

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