08 Aug, 2009

Playing The Building at the Roundhouse

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

David Byrne at the Roundhouse. Photo: Jonathan Birch


David Byrne’s Playing The Building installation has arrived at the Roundhouse in London….

The installation sees Byrne convert the main space at the Roundhouse into a huge musical instrument, which can be played by visitors via an old pump organ keyboard that sits in the centre of the space. Attached to the organ are numerous pipes and strings that are linked to elements of the building’s structure to create noise. Some of the sounds are made by wind being forced through the pipes, eliciting a whistling sound, while elsewhere small strikers clang and bang the metal columns, and other machines cause the metal crossbeams in the building to vibrate, causing a humming sound. The disorganised and at times cacophonous results reveal a new way of thinking about the building, as well as about the creation of music.


Byrne’s mock-up of the installation at the Roundhouse, complete with explanation

“It’s all mechanical,” Byrne explains. “There’s no speakers, there’s no electronics, or any of that modern rubbish.” This latter comment is partly in jest, as of course Byrne is well known for his musical experiments with ‘modern rubbish’. But this analogue approach is suited to the Victorian architecture at the Roundhouse (the building was originally a steam engine repair shed) and it is somehow pleasing that the strange noises created by the installation all come from the building itself rather than via electronic trickery.

The installation is also determinedly hands-on, with audience participation essential. “Kids have no hesitation in banging on it,” Byrne says, “and that frees it up for the adults too. No one is really better at playing the thing than anyone else. Some people approach it and get very organised about their sound and attempt to make a composition, but it sort of doesn’t matter really. It’s very democratic, it levels the playing field as far as performance goes.”

“We’ve very used to consuming art and culture,” he continues. “We go and sit and have it fed to us. In this case you have to do it – if you don’t do anything you don’t get anything.”


David Byrne explains how the piece works in New York


This is the third iteration of  Playing the Building, with Byrne initially creating the installation for Färgfabriken in Stockholm in 2005. Creative Time then displayed it at the Battery Maritime Building in New York last year. The piece has received acclaim in every city it has visited, though Byrne revealed that his initial proposals for Färgfabriken could have taken it in an entirely different direction. “I suggested a very low-level microwave oven that you could walk into,” he explains. “I wanted people to feel a little bit warm in there, but it was explained to me that by the time you felt a little bit warm you would already have been cooked a bit from the inside.”

The installation at the Roundhouse allows visitors to see the space bathed in daylight for the first time since its renovation, as the skylights are all open while the piece is on display. Byrne’s history with the Roundhouse actually goes back to 1976, when he played there with Talking Heads, in the band’s first UK show. Also on the bill were The Ramones and The Stranglers. “For some of us it was our first experience of gobbing,” he says. “So I never forgot the place.”

Playing the Building is on show at the Roundhouse from tomorrow until August 31. More info is at roundhouse.org.uk.

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