THE symphony of Manhattan Island, composed and performed fortissimo daily by garbage trucks, car speakers, I-beam bolters, bus brakes, warped manhole covers, knocking radiators, people yelling from high windows and the blaring television that now greets you in the back of a taxi, is the kind of music people would pay good money to be able to silence, if only there were a switch.
The other day, in a paint-peeling hangar of a room at the foot of the island, David Byrne, the artist and musician, placed his finger on a switch that did exactly the opposite: it made such music on purpose. The switch was a white key on the bass end of a beat-up Weaver pump organ that was practically the only thing sitting inside the old Great Hall of the Battery Maritime Building, a 99-year-old former ferry terminal at the end of Whitehall Street that has sat mostly dormant for more than a half-century.
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The organ’s innards had been replaced with relays and wires and light blue air hoses. And when the key was pressed, a 110-volt motor strapped to a girder high up in the room’s ceiling began to vibrate, essentially playing the girder and producing a deafening low hum — like one of the tuba tones played by the mother ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Or, if you were less charitably inclined, like a truck on Canal Street with a loose muffler. Mr. Byrne ran his fingers up the keyboard, causing more hums and whines, moans and plunks and clinks until he came to a key that seemed to do nothing.
“We’re not getting any register on that bottom one anymore,” he said, sending two artist-technicians up onto a scaffold to figure out why a certain magnetic knocker was not turning one of the room’s giant Corinthian columns — topped by upended, gaping dolphins — into a kind of architectural castanet.
The project Mr. Byrne has created with support from the public-art organization Creative Time is a kind of twist on the projects Creative Time has brought into being since it started helping artists use the city as a canvas in 1974. Often the organization finds dilapidated, neglected, historically rich buildings, and artists create installations inside, as the British artist Mike Nelson did last year when he turned a wing of the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side into a dimly lighted labyrinth. The ferry-terminal project, called, appropriately enough, “Playing the Building,” opens at noon on Saturday.
But in the case of Mr. Byrne — a founder of the Talking Heads who has been a visual artist as long as he has been a musician and producer — the Beaux-Arts terminal itself has become the installation, or at least a stunning, 9,000-square-foot part of it that once served as a soaring waiting room for passengers who came there to board ferries bound for South Brooklyn. The building has been one of those glorious Manhattan antiques caught in a decades-long time warp, not used for major ferry service since 1938. Plans to have it house everything from a children’s museum to a dance troupe to even Creative Time’s offices have fallen through over the years, and now a developer has been chosen to rehabilitate the terminal and build a hotel atop it.
At least for the next two and a half months, though, the building will simply serve as a gargantuan cast-iron orchestra. Besides being fitted with several motors, which produce the bass sounds by vibrating a set of girders that once supported a stained-glass skylight in the 40-foot-high ceiling, the organ is attached to a pump that blows air through a tangle of hoses. These hoses snake into the huge room’s old water and heating pipes and conduits, making primitive flute sounds. And then there are more than a dozen spring-loaded solenoids, attached like woodpeckers to the columns and even to a linebacker-size radiator that emits a surprisingly sonorous tone when struck in just the right place with a metal rod.
When you get both hands busy on the keyboard — as anyone who comes to see the work will be allowed to do — the room roars and clatters to life, seeming to harbor an invisible band playing something written by Philip Glass in collaboration with the Stooges, a Japanese sho virtuoso and a kitchen full of 3-year-olds with pots and ladles.
Working on the project recently in his SoHo studio, Mr. Byrne said he had generally avoided music-related art projects because he did not want his reputation as a musician to become confused with such work.
But when he was invited several years ago to propose a piece for Fargfabriken, a gallery space in a former factory in Stockholm, he began thinking about how to turn a building into an instrument. (One of his ideas for the Swedish project was to build a huge microwave oven inside the hall.) He had inherited the out-of-tune pump organ from a friend who was moving out of his print studio in the meatpacking district. And so Mr. Byrne used the organ to create the first version of “Playing the Building” in 2005.
Because he generally likes to distance his art from his music, Mr. Byrne has not composed pieces for the building-organ and does not plan to play it publicly. But he said he hoped the project would say something about the direction of popular music.
“I’m not suggesting people abandon musical instruments and start playing their cars and apartments, but I do think the reign of music as a commodity made only by professionals might be winding down,” he said in a discussion about the piece with Anne Pasternak, the project’s curator and Creative Time’s president. “The imminent demise of the large record companies as gatekeepers of the world’s popular music is a good thing, for the most part.”
The music that will soon be heard from the maritime building’s infrastructure and the organ, with assistance from a stream of visitors over the summer, is essentially “authorless,” but “strongly directed,” he said.
With only four days left before the doors opened, Mr. Byrne and two people who helped build the piece, Mark McNamara and Justin Downs, were working hard one recent afternoon to arrange the organ’s keyboard so that it played the building roughly from low notes to high — very roughly. (“Nobody’s going to be able to play Bach on it,” Mr. Byrne said.)
A white rubber mallet, useful early on for determining the lyrical quality of rusty steam pipes and girders, lay atop the organ. And even with the sun streaming through the room’s expansive skylight, there was an element of gothic ghostliness about the setup, a prim-looking church organ commanding an empty waiting room. (By way of unintentional back story, to add a little extra eeriness, in 1885 The New York Times reported that J. O. Weaver, a member of the family that owned the Weaver Organ Manufacturing Company of York, Pa., became “violently deranged” in a Dallas hotel room and committed suicide by cutting his throat “from ear to ear” with a razor.)
Mr. Byrne, wearing a straw fedora with a feather stuck in the band, seemed to grow momentarily bored with architectural harmonies and took a visitor through a doorway into a shadowy hall that led to a seemingly darker history for the building: two empty meat lockers and a tiled room with a drain that might have been an abattoir, perhaps once used for supplying meat to Governors Island, whose ferry leaves from the slips below.
“There’s some really weird stuff back here,” he said.
Then he grabbed his backpack and headed out to another appointment uptown, by means of that weirdest and most musical New York City instrument of all, the subway.