Hearing the building

July 1, 2008 § 3 Comments


Sadly, I didn’t get to actually play the building. When S. and I arrived at 10 South Street, later than was probably wise, there was already a long line of eager building-players waiting for their turn at the organ. So, instead of playing the building, I walked around in the building and listened to it, which was almost as good.

The building is, by any measure, stunning. An architectural remnant of the Gilded Age, it has clearly seen better days, which are now distant enough that we were required to sign legal waivers upon entry. Still, the structure retains elements of its former grandeur–soaring columns, impossibly high ceilings, an expansive skylight–which, in addition to their visual impact, also conspire to create a fertile acoustic environment.

I’ve always liked a “live” room, and I love what sounds do in large, uninsulated spaces. Most professional sound engineers hate these environments, and, admittedly, they can be tricky to record in, but from a performance standpoint there’s nothing better. Aside from revelling in sheer scale, you’re forced to work with the space and to respond to its particular character and limitations, which makes it an instrument in its own right. I think this is part of what David Byrne is getting at with his installation, and what the best producers already know in their bones.

Tellingly, when most people sit down at the organ, they are compelled by their past experience to play it as a conventional keyboard instrument. In some cases, this means plunking out a quick rendition of Chopsticks; in others, sweeping the keys with deft arpeggios. Either way, the approach is much too busy for what the organ is designed to do, which is to trigger non-melodic and, often, non-percussive sounds that don’t correspond to the ADSR envelope of traditional keyboards.

When the player depresses a key, they need to listen to the building to hear what it is going to do. In the case of percussive sounds, the effect is almost immediate: for instance, when a signal is transmitted to a hammer which strikes something, just as a piano does. Other sounds, however, are slower and less clearly defined–the motorized vibration of a metal girder, say, which produces more of a low, droning hum–and because of it they are easy to miss if the player isn’t patient with them.

As I walked around the building trying to discern the different sounds that were being played, I thought about the connection between listening and patience, and about what it means not to know the outcome of a sound in advance. In this respect, playing a building is really a process of feeling it out, both in terms of its acoustic properties but also as a way of situating ourselves as hearers in an unfamiliar space. There’s something in this that has bearing on the social dimensions of sound, and, for me, raises an interesting question: what do we do when we encounter strange territory? At the very least, are we listening?

(N.B. For more photos, click here.)

§ 3 Responses to Hearing the building

  • rada says:

    “what do we do when we encounter strange territory? At the very least, are we listening?”

    that last question is what a friend and I have decided basically sums up most of post modern ideology.

    this installation piece sounds fantastic. when i return to NYC later in July, i’m definitely gonna have to experience it.

  • mare says:

    I’ve seen this piece and all I wrote was: “Just being in that building, an old ferry terminal, was already nice. All these sounds added to the experience and made it even better.”

    Reading this post I now understand what I saw and heard.
    Your prose is so wonderful exact.
    I’m looking forward to reading your thesis. Thank you.

  • Vila H. says:

    Rada: I’m curious to know why you think so. And yes, you should absolutely check out the installation when you get back. But go early.

    Mare: Well, there is something to be said for concision, which is an art I have yet to master. Still, thanks.

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