David Byrne has been writing songs about architecture for three decades. The first single by his postpunk art-rock supergroup, the Talking Heads, was 1977's "Love—>Building on Fire," and the band's second album was called "More Songs About Buildings and Food." But now he seems more interested in making the buildings do the singing. This week the art student turned rock star turned avant-garde artiste will transmogrify a historic New York landmark into a massive, interactive keyboard. The project, called "Playing the Building," plops a humble antique organ in the middle of a decaying 9,000-square-foot beaux-arts hall. Wires stream out from behind the organ, connecting it to a couple of dozen spots throughout the structure. From May 31 until Aug. 10, visitors will be invited to stop in, free of charge, and tickle its ivories: 11 keys will trigger hammers that clang against cast-iron columns and pipes; 5 will jump-start motors that make the ceiling beams vibrate and hum, and 12 will shoot blasts of air through pipes, tootling them at different pitches—like flutes. One could conceivably play a little tune with the building, "but," says Byrne, "that's not really the point."
So what is the point? Making music from buildings isn't that new an idea. In 2004 the German industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten played a concert in—and on—the skeleton of the Parliament building of the former German Democratic Republic. It was a defiant symbol of victory over the forces of oppression. Still, it was just a performance by a band for an audience. In Byrne's interactive work, the visitor is as integral to the piece as the building itself. "People going into an art institution are usually treated as passive consumers, as vessels to be filled with art on the wall or music emanating from the stage," Byrne tells NEWSWEEK. "['Playing the Building'] only exists, and comes to life, when the public participates in it." In 2005 he invited visitors to play a similar sonic sculpture at the Fargfabriken, a former paint factory in Stockholm. Byrne was pleasantly surprised by how his democratic vision came to life. "Because it's not an instrument that's been around for a while, there's no virtuosos. The public senses that. So they lose some of their natural inhibitions about playing on it." Parents brought their kids, and amateur musicians noodled on the booming instrument, turning the building into something of a wiki artwork that anyone could influence. As such, fans of Byrne's music shouldn't expect any performances by the Talking Head himself: that would defeat the purpose. In fact, the original title of the piece, "David Byrne's Playing the Building," was shortened to "Playing the Building" to alleviate confusion.
The Battery Maritime Building is itself a work of art. Perched on Manhattan's southernmost tip, the 1909 landmark is a gorgeous example of French Exposition architecture. At the peak of New York's ferry era, 17 separate lines connected the East River waterfront to Brooklyn; by 1938 all had vanished, slowly rendered obsolete by a certain suspension bridge. With its soaring hall and ornate iron moldings, the building is the perfect industrial-age relic for Byrne's vision. From here he'd like to take the project to other sites, but good candidates are hard to come by. No matter; he's got plenty else on his plate. In addition to recording again with frequent collaborator Brian Eno and turning "Here Lies Love," his opera about Imelda Marcos, into an album, Byrne is figuring out how to get music from another unlikely source. "I'm trying to see if we can get a robot to sing, just stand in a room singing." Maybe it could open for Iron Maiden.