[image via Creative Time]
David Byrne’s Playing The Building will come to a close this weekend. The art installation—a repeat performance of a 2005 installation in Stockholm—transforms an abandoned Manhattan warehouse into a fully playable, fully immersive musical instrument. Byrne describes the resulting cacophony as “authorless” but “strongly directed” music, with sounds created by air hoses snaking through rusty plumbing pipes to blow out tones that evoke broken flutes or lonesome bagpipes, while motors vibrate against structural steel to create ominous disharmonic rumblings that can be felt as much as heard and solenoids peck at old columns and like industrial, robotic woodpeckers. This diverse orchestra of architecture is all controlled via a simple vintage pump organ — an organ that quite literally gives a voice to the space.
Music and architecture have been conceptually linked since Goethe famously uttered, “I call architecture frozen music.” Architects have long struggled with integrating the two ideas — sometimes successfully, often not. David Byrne’s installation introduces we get an entirely new, quite literal, integration of the two. In contrast with Playing The Building, music has a much more subtle influence on a small part of a new San Francisco museum.
[The Yud Space in the San Francisco CJM]
Within the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, there’s a room known as the Yud space. It’s a large performance space—faceted in a way that unmistakably marks the building as a Daniel Libeskind design—that’s planned to accomodate everything from string quartets to avant-garde music recordings. Currently, a John Zorn piece interpreting various letters of the Hebrew alphabet is reverberating through the fractured room. Some interpreations included minimal beats or soothing strings while others sound like a Jimmy Hendrix – John Cage duet dubbed over a Sonic Youth B-side. I loved it. Each “movement” felt as if it was actually enhanced by the space. Finally! A Libeskind design that complements the exhibited work! However, it was impossible not to notice that the 60-something-year-old couple who were also in the room during my visit clearly didn’t share my enthusiasm. They left quickly, making their opinions known with a few disparaging comments concerning both the Yud and the music. It occurred to me then that Libeskind has possibly created a room where, depending on the temperament of the visitor, one’s appreciation of the space might very well rely on the piece of music experienced while standing within it. Would that same 60-something-year-old couple have a similar reaction if they were listening to a string quartet perform Schubert’s “Rosamunde?”
In Playing The Building, music is a representation of the space, while in the Yud, the space becomes— at least potentially—a representation of the music. Through Byrne’s project, we come to understand the building in a new way, through a new interpretation of our sense of sound as it applies to space and architecture. But it’s an understanding that is unlikely to change one’s opinion of the Manhattan warehouse. But in an arguably more controversial space, like Libeskind’s museum, it seems like audio output has the power to actually shape one’s perception of the space. An impressive feat for an architect whose work is often written-off as heavy-handed and repetitive.