There’s something about Minneapolis that keeps David Byrne coming back for more. Already this year he has taken part in a live interview about his new book at McNally Smith College of Music and launched his tour with St. Vincent at the State. This month he returned once again to attend the opening of his art installation-meets-musical experiment “Playing the Building.”
For the uninitiated, a quick primer: Minneapolis is the fourth home for “Playing the Building,” which has also inhabited industrial warehouse spaces in Stockholm, London, and New York. The latest exhibit takes over the main room of the North Loop warehouse-turned-event center Aria (formerly Theatre de la Jeune Lune), with its organ situated near the entrance to the room and massive blue wires extended out into every corner of the beautiful, cavernous space. Each key of the organ triggers a hammer, pipe, or drill set up somewhere in the room, so that by playing the organ one is literally tinkering with the infrastructure of the building. And a simple set of instructions are emblazoned in yellow spray paint on the floor in front of the organ’s bench: “Please Play.”
I had a couple of opportunities to play the building last week. The first was as a clueless bystander on the exhibit’s opening night, one who was nudged toward the bench by an especially encouraging attendee that nodded in approval and cried “That was a good one!” as I haplessly plunked away at the keys. The second was as a (still clueless) leader of a free-form jam session on Saturday night, the likes of which will be taking place every weekend during the exhibit’s month-long stay in Minneapolis.
For Saturday’s jam session, I recruited the help of a few musicians who I thought might be comfortable walking into a completely unpredictable, improvised situation: Zack Coulter and Adam Hurlburt of Solid Gold, plus Maggie Morrison of Votel and LaLiberte. The only rule in place for the jam session was that we were only allowed to bring in other acoustic instruments, so Maggie, Zack, and Adam decided to alternate between Byrne’s organ and an old out-of-tune piano while I made a go of it on the flute.
We got off to a comically bad start. Maggie approached a family that was experimenting with the organ to let them know we were ready to begin our “performance.”
“What do you mean?” asked the woman, eyeing us quizzically.
Well lady, we didn’t really know.
Maggie and Zack sat down at the piano and Adam at the organ, and somehow—I don’t recall how, exactly—we all began. The organ doesn’t sound like music so much as it sounds like someone aggressively repairing a car engine while simultaneously playing one of those Renaissance Festival-style wooden flutes. Between the clang of the organ’s hammers and pipes and the dissonant clamor of the upright piano, it was difficult to know exactly where my flute would fit in. Why did I even have a flute? What were we doing there? It was difficult not to panic as we grappled with the uncertainty our little experiment.
But then, about 10 or 15 minutes into it (at least I think that’s how far along we were; time seems to evaporate while doing this sort of thing), something happened. We clicked. Adam figured out a few of the more atmospheric sounds on the organ, Maggie and Zack had fallen into a rhythm with one another on the piano, and I had figured out how to play my flute so out of tune that it actually aligned with what everyone else was doing. I started playing a little fluttery part on my flute in response to something Maggie was doing on the keys, and we all shot each other looks of surprise and awe. There was a woah moment. None of us really knew how we got there, but for a second it sounded pretty damn cool.
After that I walked over to the organ and started plucking out some of the higher keys. The organ is set up so that the lower keys are connected to some louder, more percussive drills; the middle keys seem to blow air through some woodwind-sounding pipes; and the higher keys trigger the clacks and clangs of hammers on steel. I tried finagling some of the woodwind-sounding keys to correspond with what now sounded like some kind of Bach fugue happening over on the piano, but the keys proved quite unpredictable. Tones would change each time I played them, and finding a rhythm seemed impossible; it was as if the organ didn’t want to be played in any kind of sensical manner.
Eventually I gave up and started hammering away at the lower keys with Adam, working in a buzzing drill sound that sounded straight out of a horror flick. Someone out in the room picked up one of the handmade percussion instruments we had strewn about and started shaking it in time with the drilling noise, and it sounded like we were providing the accompaniment for some kind of drunken, late-night crypt keeper’s samba across a dusty dance floor. The louder the drilling grew the less I could hear what was happening over on the piano, and pretty soon we were all just accomplices in a loud and directionless cacophony that kept us clamoring through to the end.
Apparently we played for about 40 minutes. It felt like five, and also felt like forever. I’m not quite sure what to make of all of it, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
“Playing the Building” is open through December 4, with organized jam sessions taking place each weekend. Here’s the schedule for the remainder of the improvised, collaborative “play days”:
Saturday, Nov. 17
Saturday Play Day
Adam Levy will be leading sessions between 2-5pm
Crystal J. and Crystal M. from Brute Heart will do something at 6:30pm
Sunday, Nov. 18
St. Thomas / McNally Smith College of Music Improvisation Ensemble 2-4pm
Saturday, Nov. 24
A Heliotrope Excerpt featuring Davu Seru, Milo Fine, Paul Metzger, and International Novelty Gamelan 5-10pm
Friday, Nov 30
Emerging Musicians Night with David Sutton, Kara Laudon and Lydia Hoglund (Bomba de Luz)
Saturday Dec. 1
Final Saturday Play Day
Drew Christopherson (Polica) and Mark McGee (Father You See the Queen), Chris Danforth (The Danforths) and Friends, Bryce Beverlin II, Adam Conrad (Improvestra / Project Coffee Pot) and Martin Dosh 2-10pm
- David Byrne and Aria’s Peter Remes talk to Steve Seel about “Playing the Building”
- David Byrne and St. Vincent launch collaborative tour at the State