Byrning down the Roundhouse

His career has taken in just about every musical instrument. So now David Byrne's playing an entire building
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The Independent Culture

Take an old pump organ, a mass of wires and a 160-year-old Grade II listed building. Combine them with the creative genius of David Byrne, co-founder of the band Talking Heads, and the result is a giant musical instrument.

Playing the Building, the 57-year-old musician's latest project, opens to the public today at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London. It allows people to produce their own sounds – although probably not harmonies – using the building's own network of metal beams, cast iron pillars and pipes.

Pressing the keys on the organ sends signals up the wires, which are connected to different parts of the building. Air is blown through hollow pipes to create flute-like sounds, while other surfaces are tapped with hammers, producing a bizarre cacophony of whistling, rumbling and clanging.

"Having grown up in New York with radiators banging, I'm very much aware that buildings make sounds," said Byrne. "It's all mechanical, there are no electronics or samples or any of that sort of modern rubbish. You can't play Bach... no one is really better at playing the thing than anyone else. It's very democratic."

As if to stress this point, Byrne politely declined invitations to "play the building" himself yesterday.

It is the first time the musician has brought his installation to the UK. It featured in New York's Battery Maritime Building last year and at a former paint factory in Stockholm in 2005.

The Roundhouse was built in 1846 as a steam engine shed but during the late 20th century it was used as an arts centre, hosting the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. Byrne said his first experience of the building had been in 1976, when he was about to play a gig with Talking Heads. It was the new wave band's first London concert during the height of the punk movement, and they featured on a bill alongside the Ramones and the Stranglers.

Playing the Building is just the latest project Byrne has added to his ever-expanding array of artistic output. He has also founded a record label, written books, filmed documentaries and written musicals. Currently, he is occupied by the launch of his book, Bicycle Diaries, which details his exploration of European cities on a folding bike, an activity of which he became fond while touring the world as a musician. Byrne is a keen cyclist – his bike has been his main means of transport in New York since the 1980s – but the book is less about puncture repair and more about his observations of modern life from the saddle.

Just as his Roundhouse installation attempts to get inside an ancient building, Byrne said his two-wheeled escapades allowed him get a feel for the inner workings and rhythms of each city. "When you're cycling you really get a sense of this being one village and then you're in another village, where people really identify with working or living in that place," he said of cycling in London. He has now decided to auction the Montague folding bike he used while writing the book, and will donate the proceeds to the London Cycling Campaign.

Bricks and music: How it works

*The project was originally commissioned by the Fargfabriken organisation in Stockholm, where Byrne was invited to create an installation in a former paint factory. His plan was to "activate the building" and make sounds with its wrought iron beams.

*The installation uses an old foot operated pump organ, or harmonium, which were once built for regional US churches. It was given to Byrne 10 years ago. He tried to use it while recording but said it was "only in tune with itself".

*The organ's keys are used as switches for cables that run to various places all over the building. When a key is pushed, they trigger a note somewhere in the building as a beam or column is hit or filled with air. There is no amplification.

*Byrne used an old organ as it matched the industrial buildings. He felt a modern keyboard would look too electronic.

Larry Ryan: Even the tone deaf – like me – can do it

Eyewitness

I haven't a trace of musical ability, not a note in my head. My parents tried to make me learn the piano as a child but the project was quickly abandoned. It was rather strange then to find myself sitting at an organ, with people looking on, cameras clicking and rolling, as I "played the Roundhouse."

The organ has three main groups of sounds: I hit the keys to the right and a high pitched clanging noise like a detuned xylophone followed. Next I went left and a low drilling burr was emitted, sounding as if a tank was approaching from afar. Finally I attacked the central bank of keys producing a whistling wind sound, somewhat resembling a less annoying version of pan pipes played individually.

After that I briefly attempted that rolling fingers thing that pianists do, but a series of drills followed rather than a soft melody. I gave up on any pretence of finding a tune and started banging keys at random. I felt like a child encountering a musical instrument for the first time. When I finished my command performance no one clapped, but no one booed either.

"Democratising performance", making everyone feel they can play regardless of any musical talent is one of main points of the installation. If no one plays the organ it sits in silence so the onus is on the viewer to take part rather than just consume a performance. Normally the thought of attempting to play any instrument in front of an audience would fill me with embarrassment, but with this installation the pressure is off. You can contentedly make whatever sound you fancy. Anyone can play the building.

"It's not Bach," Byrne had quipped of his installation, and it's all the more accessible for it.

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