Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Saturday, 8 August 2009 11:24 UK

Byrne makes Roundhouse walls sing

Playing the Building
The installation opened to the public on Saturday

A cacophony of clangs, hums and whistles resonate around London's iconic music venue Roundhouse.

But this time it's the building itself - not the bands that have played its hallowed hall - taking centre stage.

The building has been transformed into a giant steampunk musical instrument by Talking Heads founder David Byrne.

An old pump organ in the centre of the circular hall is linked to the Roundhouse's metal beams, cast iron pillars and plumping pipes, via a sprawling mass of cables.

Visitors can "play" the building by pressing the keyboard to make tuneful sounds and vibrations.

But it's hardly music to one's ears.

Byrne, who was in London to launch the installation, compared the air rushing through pipes as a sound akin to that of a flute, but admitted: "You can't play Bach."

"It kind of levels the playing field as far as performance goes. We are all equally amateur at it," he added.

"The piano lessons you got as a child are not going to be of too much use."

'Modern rubbish'

Byrne, 57, formed new wave band Talking Heads in the mid-1970s, and the band continued to make records until the late 1980s.

Since then, Byrne has carved an eclectic solo career as a musician, visual artist and writer.

David Byrne talks about Playing the Building, Talking Heads and selling his bike

Playing the Building is what Byrne calls "Victorian steam-punk technology" fitting to the 160-year-old Roundhouse, which was originally built in as a steam engine shed.

"There's no speakers, no electronics or samples, or any of that modern rubbish," Byrne said. "It's all very old, mechanical stuff."

"I think if you'd walked in here and seen some spindley legs and a little black matt keyboard with plastic keys and a lot of wires coming out, you would assume that it was all very electronic and modern.

"I think when you look at this, the assumption is it's more mechanical.

"Which it is. So I think it helps connect what the thing actually is, with what it looks like," he explained.

Spitting punks

Built in 1846 for the London and Birmingham Railway, the Roundhouse, in Camden, is the third building to host Byrne's installation.

It has previously been played in an abandoned paint factory in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Battery Maritime Building, in New York's meatpacking district.

the Stranglers on Top of the Pops
Bands like The Stranglers put the Roundhouse on the map in the 1970s

The installation has been modified for each location to make most of each building's unique features - in this case the Roundhouse's Victorian architecture.

It became an infamous music venue in the 1960s and 1970s, hosting gigs by bands like The Doors and The Rolling Stones. After years of neglect, it reopened in 2006 as a music and theatre space following a £30m facelift.

And it is not the first time Byrne has brought music to the venue.

In the 1970s he performed there with The Ramones and The Stranglers. It was, he explained, unforgettable for one reason - the punks' penchant for spitting.

"It was, for some of us, our first experience of 'gobbing'," he said. "It made me realise The Ramones' leather jackets had other functions.

"So I never forgot the space."

Playing the Building runs from Saturday 8 August until 31 August.

Print Sponsor

Byrne turns venue into instrument
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