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Byrne makes music with London building

David Byrne
David Byrne
Danny Clinch, Associated Press

LONDON — David Byrne doesn't want to rock the building, but it may shake a little.

The ex-Talking Heads frontman has turned London's Roundhouse, a former railway engine shed, into a giant musical instrument for the installation "Playing the Building."

The work invites visitors to make the brick and iron structure vibrate and oscillate through a series of wires and cables attached to the body of an old-fashioned pump organ. The music produced is rudimentary, a cacophony of clangs, hums and whistles.

"You can't play Bach," Byrne said Friday — and that is part of the appeal. "It kind of levels the playing field as far as performance goes. We are all equally amateur at it.

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

Each of the keys is attached to one of the multicolored strands that snake up from the wooden organ toward the vaulted ceiling of the Victorian building. Striking some of the keys blows air through plumbing pipes. Other keys trigger bits of metal to strike iron pillars, or turn motors that make the girders thrum.

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

Built in 1846 for the London and Birmingham Railway, the Roundhouse was a fabled music venue in the 1960s and '70s, holding gigs by Pink Floyd, The Doors and others. But the building sat neglected for years before it reopened in 2006 as a concert hall and theater space.

Usually it plays host to the music of others. "This is the first time the Roundhouse has a chance to play for itself," said artistic director Marcus Davey.

Byrne said that role-reversal is part of the appeal of "Playing the Building."

"We're very used to consuming art and culture," he said. "In this case, you have to do it."

Byrne, 57, has forged an eclectic solo career as a musician and visual artist since pioneering new-wave band Talking Heads stopped making records in the late 1980s. Byrne says a strand of accessibility runs through his work, from Talking Heads to his art and his musical collaborations with electronic pioneer Brian Eno.

"Most of the stuff I do is not meant to be obscure or difficult," Byrne said. "It's supposed to be accessible to ordinary folks."

Byrne's latest tour of Europe — playing songs he composed with Eno — ends Sunday at the Big Chill Festival in central England.

He also has staged "Playing the Building" in an abandoned paint factory in Stockholm, Sweden, and in the Battery Maritime Building in New York.

The Roundhouse holds special memories for Byrne, who played the venue with Talking Heads in 1976, on a bill that included punk bands The Ramones and The Stranglers. Byrne said he has never forgotten the enthusiasm of British punk fans for spitting.

"It was, for some of us, our first experience of gobbing," he said. "So I never forgot the space."

"Playing the Building" is at The Roundhouse in London from Saturday until Aug. 31.