I first saw David Byrne’s Playing the Building at Battery Maritime Building in New York City in 2008. It was after hours, and I was the only person there besides the attendant. It was a magical moment, and the building, under renovation before reopening as the summer ferry terminal to Governor’s Island, seemed to sigh and wheeze and pound its history as I prodded the organ keys. In my mind’s eye, it was late afternoon, and the light was slanting through the grimed windows like a Francis Frith cathedral.
The thing about Playing the Building, however, is that it is intentionally a secular experience. It is not about star power. In the technical rider for the project, it states several times words to the effect: DAVID BYRNE WILL NOT PLAY PLAYING THE BUILDING. Do not ask. This is not a not a blue M&M’s clause. It is out of respect for the intent of the project, which is all about exploration and play, not awe. By exploring the re-programmed keys of the organ, you are drawn to explore the recesses of the building. Where did that sound come from? What made that sound? Why does it sound that way? By hacking the organ, you are encouraged to think about how to hack the building. This building. Any building. Any thing.
I saw Beatrix*Jar at the recent opening of Playing the Building at Aria, the old Jeune Lune theater, and I wanted to ask them what they thought about the relationship of circuit bending to playing around with buildings, but we didn’t get the chance. Maybe we would have discussed Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts. Usman Haque’s Evoke, “a massive animated projection that lights up the facade of York Minster in response to the public, who use their own voices to “evoke” colourful light patterns that emerge at the building’s foundations and soar up towards the sky, giving the surface a magical feeling as it melts with colour” might have come up. What’s interesting about Playing the Building is the way it deconstructs the organ and building, stripping them both of harmony and ornament. It’s not really about making music. It’s more about making. And listening. The organ is an amplifier for the solitude of an empty building.
Theater de la Jeune Lune was a fabled theater company. Playing the building, their building, one can’t help but hear Cyrano in the wings or Juliet on the balcony or perhaps urgent late night whisperings pouring over the books in a back room. It’s a magnificent building. Playing the Building does it full justice and First&First is to be congratulated for bringing this exciting event to the Twin Cities and bringing excitement back to the building of Theater de la Jeune Lune.