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August 5, 2008
Vol. VIII, No. 5

"Playing the Building"
On any given day in New York City, there is so much going on that it's impossible to keep track of all the events. Actually, I might go so far as to suggest that it is undesirable to keep track. One of the best ways to enjoy the city is to pick a neighborhood and just wander around and see what you discover.

That was my Saturday. The neighborhood was downtown Manhattan. First stop was a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. I've wanted to go there for a while and I'm glad I finally experienced it. Following was a stroll through Battery Park and along the harbor to enjoy the boats and the water. This led to a ride on the Staten Island Ferry to enjoy the breeze on the open water (the view of the Statue of Liberty is just a bonus). The S.I. Ferry is one of the last fun things to do in New York that is still free but now that it seems the tourists have caught on, it can get a bit crowded.

Coming off the ferry back in Manhattan, a right turn was negotiated to head up toward South Street Seaport but a sign caught my eye, "Playing the Building: An Installation by David Byrne." Some of you may recognize Byrne as the pop music icon who fronted Talking Heads. Anyway, we entered the Battery Maritime Building, walking up some dark stairs into a cavernous space they call the Great Hall. It resembled a giant, empty warehouse. Well, almost empty. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the floor was an organ console.

The console was an old Weaver pump organ and had a whole host of wires coming out of the back. The wires ran off to all parts of the cavernous space and were wired directly to the building in order to create sounds using the building. The keyboard of the console could trigger a variety of sounds that could be grouped into (1) humming motors attached to girders, (2) percussive solenoids rapping on different metal columns and (3) haunting flute-like tones produced by air blown through heating pipes. Visitors were free to stroll throughout the space to experience the echoing cacophony, which ranged from pensive to hyper, depending on who was "playing."

And that was the best part. Despite the heat, humidity and long wait, there was a steady line of regular people enduring it all for a chance to sit down at an organ console to create "music." I was stunned. One of the goals of the installation was to break down the barriers between the music producers and the music consumers. This is something that has been increasingly missing since the introduction of recorded music. The idea that "I" can make music, as opposed to listening to someone "Other Than I" create music.

It wasn't a pipe organ but something about the whole scene resonated with me. Between the console, the echoey music, the mechanical nature of the instrument with the wires running off in all directions. It was enough like an organ. Especially the fact that it was "at one" with the building. I felt like a whole lot of people were being subliminally indoctrinated into the world of the pipe organ that day. It's something to think about.

Here are some links if you're interested in finding out more:

David Byrne Makes New York Building Sing: NPR Music

All the background from David Byrne's website

A starting place on YouTube to see some videos of regular people playing the organ

I was saddened to hear of the passing of composer Norman Dello Joio on July 24, 2008. My first exposure to his work was through his Piano Suite, which was one of my college audition pieces. I was so intent on getting into Oberlin that I hedged my bets. First, I applied, and was accepted, into the College of Arts and Sciences where I could major in music although that wasn't quite as satisfying as being accepted into the Conservatory. I had always planned on auditioning for the piano department but then I read in the course catalog that you could audition for the organ department on piano. Good thing because the piano audition didn't work out. So Dello Joio was the piece I learned for the Contemporary category of my audition.

I was not aware until I read his obituary that he was at one time a church organist, as was his father. He apparently composed a few organ works although I haven't been able to find them. He also studied with Pietro Yon. Lots of organ connections that I didn't know about so I thought I would celebrate Dello Joio's life and work with a few links.

Obituary of Dello Joio in The New York Times

Sheet music for "Suite for Piano" by Norman Dello Joio:

You can listen to excerpts of Dello Joio's "Suite for Piano" here:

Other sheet music by Dello Joio:

Other recordings of Dello Joio's music:


Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

Have a great week!

Dan Long

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