Playing the Building

Photography by Jake Armour

First & First presents Playing the Building, a 17,000-square-foot, interactive, site-specific installation by renowned artist David Byrne. The artist will transform the interior of Aria, formerly the Jeune Lune building, located in the Historic Warehouse District in Minneapolis, MN into a massive sound sculpture that all visitors are invited to sit and “play.” Peter Remes, Founder of First & First explains, “Playing the Building is the first of many creative, cultural experiences we plan to bring to the Twin Cities.”

With successful runs in Stockholm, New York, and London, Playing the Building marks the first time Aria will host an art installation, which will be accessible to the general public. The project will consist of a retrofitted antique organ, placed in the center of the building’s cavernous first floor gallery, that will control a series of devices attached to its structural features. Everything from metal beams, plumbing, electrical conduits, and heating and water pipes will vibrate, strike, and create unique harmonics and finely tuned sounds. The space will be open daily and everyone will be invited to sit at the organ, tap on the keys, and create a unique array of sounds that travel through the space.

“David is most widely known as a musician, but he is an extraordinary writer, visual artist, and director who resists categorization, plays around with grey zones, and favors a life of broad creativity,” says Peter Remes, Founder of Aria. “Playing the Building is deceptive in its simplicity; it’s layered with rich meaning relating to human nature, our contemporary relationship to place and sound, andconsiderations of shifts in culture at large.”

As Byrne explains, “Typical parts of buildings can be used to produce interesting sounds. Everyone is familiar with the fact that if you rap on a metal column, for example, you will hear a ping or a clang, but I wondered if the pipes could be turned into giant flutes, and if a machine could make girders vibrate and produce tones.”


Photography by Jake Armour

Turning a Building into a Giant Musical Instrument
David Byrne’s Proposal for Playing the Building
Färgfabriken, Stockholm
August 2005

In his own words, David Byrne describes the conception of Playing the Building:  Some years ago Jan Aman approached me through our mutual friend Anne Pasternak about doing something at Färgfabriken in Stockholm. I visited the space during one of my music tours and took photos so I could remember the way it looked. For a while we talked about an exhibition, and some other ideas, but for various reasons those didn’t happen. I seem to remember that both Anne and Jan suggested I do something that might bring together my visual arts interests and projects and my musical background.

After thinking about it for a while and looking at the pictures of the space, I suggested an installation that would produce sound and would take advantage of the fact that the institution is housed in a raw factory space – with exposed pipes, heating and structural elements (unlike most museums and galleries where these elements are hidden.) I also wanted an installation that involved the public, the visitors to Färgfabriken, so this would do that too. It would be more “hands on” than most exhibitions where one can look but not touch.

A sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of the building is converted into a giant musical instrument. (I use the term musical loosely. It might not play melodies in the conventional sense… but it might.)

To create this, various devices are attached to parts of the building structure – to the metal beams, the plumbing, the electrical conduits, the heating pipes, the water pipes – and are used to make these things produce sound. No amplification is used, no computer synthesis of sound, and there are no speakers. The machines will produce sound in three ways: through wind, vibration and striking. The devices that are part of the piece do not produce sound on their own, but instead they cause the building elements themselves to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument.

It is a way of activating the sound-producing qualities that are inherent in all materials. The materials’ nature and form will be what determines what kind of sound they produce. Everyone knows that if you strike a metal beam with your hand you get a sound – well, this piece does a similar thing, but without hurting your hand, and it will be able to activate materials in different parts of the space simultaneously – something you cannot do with your hands.

Photography by Jake Armour

A blower forces air through electrical conduits or pipes, eliciting a whistling series of notes, depending on the length of the pipe. (The wind will blow through the electrical conduits by a small air pump. At sufficient pressure the air will cause the air inside the conduit pipes to resonate and produce flute-like tones.)

Machines attached to the metal crossbeams cause them to vibrate, sending out a low hum and throbbing sound. The girders can be made to vibrate using oscillating motors… and since the girders are of varying lengths they will produce different pitches and sounds. They will need electrical power and another cable running from the keyboard/ switcher, which will turn them on and off. There will be maybe four or six of these units scattered around the room, some near and some far away.

Photography by Jake Armour


The hallow metal columns that line the interior of the space are made to clang and ping. These large iron objects can be struck by mechanical devices – solenoids – much like mechanical bell clappers.

The wiring and the mechanics will be plainly visible – no attempt will be made to conceal any mechanism or wiring. Switches that activate these machines are triggered by a simple keyboard located at a central position (within viewing distance of all the machines and of the pipes or beams whose vibrations they control, so that visitors might hear what depressing each key does.) Visitors are invited to sit at the keyboard and “play” the building. Some keys might trigger machines that activate the specific structures gradually – a quick tap on some keys might produce no result, but a steady depression would allow oscillations to build up and a sound to emerge. A handwritten legend above each note group will describe which part of the building that note activates.

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