The sound of pneumatic and electric actuators may already be music to the ears of engineers. But David Byrne, the musician and artist who founded the Talking Heads, has a different take on squeezing some musical sound out of these industrial automation components.
In his new Playing the Building installation, which opened Saturday in Lower Manhattan, Byrne and a team of artists and technicians have transformed a historic ferry terminal building into a musical sculpture in which the building itself provides tuned sounds.
It’s not the first time Byrne has converted a building into a giant musical instrument. A conceptually similar Playing the Building project took place in Sweden in 2005. Since then, however, the actuation systems that “activate” the buildings have evolved, and this new installation can be more finely tuned — in both the musical and engineering senses — than the original installation.
Playing the Building is built around an antique pump organ set in the middle of a 9,000 sq ft gallery within the Battery Maritime Building. The organ serves as a controller for a collection of actuators that activate the building’s structural, heating and plumbing elements, producing different tones. “It seemed like a really obvious idea,” Byrne says. “New Yorkers know that radiators make noise.” The same goes for pipes and even vibrating steel girders. In fact, all of these building elements have been enlisted in the sound production.
According to Byrne, one of the design goals was making the installation easily accessible to visitors, who are allowed to sit down at the organ and actually play the building themselves. “Trained musicians have no advantage over anyone else. No one will sit down and be a virtuoso,” he says.
And that ethos of accessibility turns up in the technical aspects of the installation’s design. Its electronics, for example, have intentionally been kept on the simple side. Playing the Building is not only unamplified but also relies entirely on analog controls for the actuators. Byrne says he even picked the old organ as a controller partly to reinforce the notion this installation doesn’t make music digitally. “It helps you see this isn’t MIDI or a synthesizer,” he says.
For the technicians and artists who built this unique instrument, simple controls didn’t translate to an easy job. Getting this particular building to sing required three different types of custom actuators in all. Each produce a distinct class of sound by causing the various building elements to vibrate, resonate or oscillate.
The installation’s rumbling bass sounds, for example, are produced by electric motors mounted overhead on 15-ft long, 1/4-inch thick, 4-inch steel girders that once held up the building’s stained-glass skylight. The motors have been thrown off-kilter and vibrate whenever they run thanks to the addition of weights to their shafts. “The motors cause the girders to oscillate much the way a strummed guitar string does,” says Mark McNamara, Byrne’s production manager for the installation and an audio artist himself.
Two types of motors were needed to get the range of bass sounds that Byrne wanted for the installation. Some of the bass comes from a 110V AC squirrel cage motor running at 3300 rpm. Four more 90V DC motors running with variable speed drives produce other bass tones. According to Justin Downs, the systems engineer responsible for the actuation systems, the variable speed drives helped extract more pitches from the same girders — allowing them to be tuned in a rough chromatic scale. He adds the installation in Sweden lacked the variable speed drives that make some of this fine-tuning possible.
The installation’s other two actuator styles are both pneumatic. One is a solenoid-driven striker used to clang on the building’s metal columns and radiators. The timing of the strikes are governed by 24V relays, “which is as close as we get to a computer,” McNamara says.
The other actuator style consists of wall-mounted “flutes” created from steel pipes, which sound off when air is blown across holes cut into them. These particular pipes aren’t part of the original building “because we couldn’t tap into the real pipe-work,” McNamara notes. In all, the installation uses 12 flutes, one for each tone in a chromatic scale. A pressure regulation system — with high, low and combined air outputs — allows each pipe flute to produce three tones in octaves.
Controlling the whole system is the organ, whose individual keys have been made into on-off switches for either a single actuator or a single state of an actuator that produces more than one tone. Its hollowed-out back now houses pneumatic manifolds, pressure regulators and electronic components and its keys only operate electrical contacts. So it no longer plays the old-fashioned way. “It’s really a set of switches now,” says Downs.
Rounding out the installation is an air compressor, sized at 80 gal and 6.2 HP. “We needed something large enough to run everything at once, in case someone decides to push down all the keys at the same time,” McNamara says.
While Playing the Building has no shortage of wires and air hoses and tough-to-reach actuator locations, physically assembling the system wasn’t the toughest part of the job, according to McNamara. “Tuning gave me the biggest headaches,” he says, noting this process involved a series of minute changes to solenoid behavior, location and mass of the motor weights, actuator coupling to the building structures and many more variables. “We basically had to come into the space and find the sounds it can produce. Then we had to map those sounds to the keyboard,” he says. “That was the hard part.”
Presented by Creative Time, Playing the Building runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. through August 10.