Christopher Janney

Posted in Music on Oct 09, 2009


What do Mikhail Baryshnikov, the 34th St N-R Subway stop in New York and Jack Johnson have in common? An encounter with Christopher Janney’s amazing art!

sonic forest

sonic forest

The multi-gifted Janney has composed music from Baryshnikov’s own heartbeat to which the celebrated dancer performed; he created a permanent interactive sound art installation, “Reach-New York,” at the N-R stop; and, at Coachella, Jack Johnson talked about how cool it was to meet Janney and be in his Sonic Forest (Janney’s “forest” of poles that create sound when people interact with them.)

It’s no surprise Jack Johnson was so moved by Janney’s work — it’s meant to elicit new ways to sense the environment around you. If you live in California, you can have your own encounter with Janney’s Sonic Forest at USC October 12-16. And fortunately for the rest of us, there’s a long list of places to experience his work in person all over the country (and Spain!) A full list of current installations follows the interview below. After you get to know him here, you can visit Janney’s website for more about his work, his background and his book.

janney at REACH NY

Janney at REACH NY

For me, one of the things I find most inspiring about Janney is how he took his two different passions – architecture and jazz – and forged them into his own successful path. Why choose?! I also love how he works parenting advice into conversation about his art…he seems to have a knack for weaving together different concepts! And don’t miss the Proust Questionnaire after the q&a where you get an even more intimate look into the artist’s personality (and perhaps a new snack idea in this one!)


How did you arrive at merging your two loves, architecture and jazz?

I was trained as both an architect (Princeton) and jazz musician (private studies in Boston/New York). I was told in college by my architecture professor at the time, Michael Graves, that I would “have to choose” between the two disciplines. That wasn’t the only piece of advice I consciously ignored from a teacher.

Sometimes I try to make architecture more like music, make it more spontaneous, more “alive.” This is best seen in my “Urban Musical Instruments” such as “Soundstair” and “Sonic Forest.”  At other times, I am interested in making music more like architecture – more physical, more visual. This is evident in my “HeartBeat” piece which has been performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and others.

Can you describe the kind of art you do?

With the Urban Musical Instruments, my interest is to create interactive environments of color, light and sound.  I am trying to give people a physically artistic experience. I am also interested in creating a “social foil” — a way for total strangers to creatively play with one another.
(the following video shows you how people played with Sonic Forest at music fest Bonaroo-all the sounds come from the interaction with the poles)

What is your creative process like?

On my Boston property, I have:
-    a full recording studio,
-    a “dirt studio” or sculpture shop and
-    a design studio.

On a good day, I am walking back and forth between the three spaces, letting ideas from one push on the others. I usually have lunch in the house with my wife, Terrell Lamb, who is a Media Consultant and also works at home.  Our various household pets (dog, two cats) usually stop by as well.

When you work on an Urban Musical Instrument project, do seek a location first and then compose, or do you compose first and then find a location to suit that sound?

Most of the Urban Musical Instrument installations are commissions, so the space is presented to me first.  But, in the case of the REACH piece in the New York subway, I had wanted to make a piece in the subway and worked with the New York MTA to find a sponsor and place the piece at 34th St.

As well, I am always working on the musical ideas, listening for new interesting sounds that might work in public spaces.
(following is a clip of Reach-New York from a CBS Sunday Morning piece)

Your work often requires people to be engaged — have you noticed a difference in how different people interact with it?

I recall a few interesting incidents during a Soundstair summer tour.
(the following video gives an idea of what Soundstair is like…the q&a continues with Janney’s hilarious and honest anecdotes about Soundstair’s international tour; this video is from a CBS Sunday Morning piece in the ’90s, but Soundstair is a permanent installation in many parts of the country today…see the list following the q&a.)

The tour started in the US (in Tulsa, OK) at a big music festival.  The piece was set on the same stairway each day for 8-10 hours so people could play and interact.  For this tour, I also traveled with a choreographer.  We picked local dancers, set short pieces on the stairs and presented the dances throughout the day.  At the end of the third day, a person came up to me and said “this would make a great burglar alarm.”  There you have it, a Princeton/MIT graduate and the best I could elicit was “burglar alarm.”

The next stop was Essen, Germany for a week-long City Festival.  After a few days, an elderly German woman came up to me and said, “You Americans have no culture and you never will.”  Dissed and dismissed!!!!!  A sense of humor is a good trait to have when working in the street.  As in the US, we had picked up a local dance troupe for the dance performances, but we cut the shows from 12 minutes to 6-minute vignettes because people weren’t staying around so long.

After a few other dates in Europe, the last stop was the Piazza di Spagni in Rome, Italy — historically, one of the world’s greatest public stairways.  Once we had the instrument set up, I told the dance performers we would do the same routine as in Germany (6-minute vignettes) since people don’t stay very long.  WRONG.  The Italians would bring a picnic, set up next to the piece and hang out for three hours!!  There are photos in my book Architecture of the Air that show the huge crowds in Italy.

To top it off, at the end of the first day an Italian came up to me and said, with a big smile, “It is a dream for Cinderella!”  That’s when it dawned on me:  Soundstair is a “cultural barometer.” Capice?

You’ve worked with so many prominent people in art and design, including Claes Oldenburg, Michael Graves, Merce Cunningham and Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Can you share some ways working with them affected you and your work?

Each one of those people (and many others) is a story in itself.

I would like to say to all the parents out there that when your children are young (under 25-30), getting them to learn how to make a living is important, but helping them gain experience is MOST important.  Whatever passion your children may develop, you, as parents, can assist by exposing them to the best and the brightest in their chosen field. If it’s the arts, then take them to see/hear the best.  If it’s law or medicine, then take them to meet the best lawyers and doctors you have ever heard of.  Help them to meet and talk to the BEST people in their areas of interest.  Most older people like to impart whatever wisdom they have to younger minds.

But most important, persistence is the key.  In the words of Albert Einstein (which I have posted above my computer): “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

You’ve successfully fused the architect side of you (a linear thought process) and the jazz musician side (a non-linear, emotional creative process.)  Talk about how we as adults can learn what you already know about meshing linear and non-linear experiences.

A better way for me to put this is the intuitive side versus the project-management side.

Thomas Edison’s edict “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” works for me.  An observer of my habits might say I spend way more time executing an idea than actually thinking freely. But the fact is, the unconscious mind is working on the intuitive issues non-stop. The trick is how to lodge the idea in the unconscious mind so it can grind away at it.  Once an idea has crystallized, the question is then to figure out how to keep the idea as strong and fresh as you can while bringing it into the world, be it a building or a symphony.

It is very much like raising a child.  You are watching it all the time, even while it sleeps.  You have to be there when it laughs to support and help reinforce this behavior.  You also have to be there when  it “falls down,” to try to catch it and save it. Like raising children, there is a great deal of  planning and organization, but there is inevitably a great deal of improvisation for incidents you could never foresee.

You’ve taught interdisciplinary studies and have weaved varied passions together.  As parents, we tend to expose our kids a wide variety of classes and lessons to see what will resonate with them. Any advice on how to offer an assortment of activity without burning them out?

Again, as parents we have to observe and find what interests a child, then try to nurture that interest without smothering it.  I gave both my children music lessons and drawing lessons on and off when they seemed ready and interested.  My son is now 21 and a very passionate musician (but I still can’t get him to pick up his room when he is home!)  My daughter stopped piano in grade school. I never wanted to force art lessons of any kind on them.  She has sketched from time to time and is currently interested in fashion, but only to buy, not so much to create.  Her interest at the moment is economics. Go figure.  But, I will always try to be there when one of them asks for assistance, while not overtly pushing anything on them.

Young children are naturally creative – how do we keep our childrens’ creativity flowing as they grow older?

My mother is 88 and my children are 18 and 21.  My mother still tries to come to an opening or performance when possible.  It’s a gas to have her there; it gives me a personal sense of history that no one else in the room can give. My wife and I hope to do the same for our kids in whatever way they may creatively go about their lives. Also, as a parent, I don’t stop thinking about who might be a good person for them to meet and talk with about their interests.  I then do what I can to make it happen.

Proust Questionnaire for Christopher Janney:

my favorite snack is:  frozen root beer cubes (I make them up in ice trays)
don’t ask me to:  run on pavement – I don’t have the knees for it anymore
I would put into a time capsule my:  copy of “West Side Story,” the screenplay
my favorite place is:  my backyard walking between the studios
when I have a creative block:  I run on the elliptical running machine
my favorite mantra is:  “The world is a mirror” (my wife and children whine whenever I say it)

Current Installations:

“A House Is A Musical Instrument: Hawaii”, Kailua Kona, HI
“A House Is A Musical Instrument: Lexington”, Lexington, MA
“Chromatic Oasis”- Sacramento International Airport, Sacramento, CA
“Circling”- DFW International Airport, Irving, Texas
“David’s Way”- Dallas, Texas
“Dream Room”- Macon Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, GA
“Harmonic Pass: Denver” – Southmoor RTD Station, Denver, CO
“Hyattsville Horns” – Hyattsville, MD
“Light Waves”- Orlando Public Library, Orlando, FL
“Maritime Sound”, New Haven, CT
“Parking in Color”- Fort Worth, TX
“Passing LIght”- San Antonio International Airport, San Antonio, TX
“Rainbow Cove Green” and “Rainbow Cove Red”- Logan International Airport, Boston, MA
“Rainbow Pass”-Miracle Center, Miami, FL
“REACH: New York”- 34th St. Subway, New York, NY
“Shadow Boxing”, Ft. Lauderdale Public Library, Ft. Lauderdale, TX
“Sonic Gates”-Manchester Community College, Manchester, CT
“Sonic Forest: Zaragoza”- Zaragoza, Spain
“Sonic Pass: Columbia, GA”- Columbia Museum, Columbus, GA
“Sonic Pass: Blue”, Lehman College, Bronx, NY
“Sonic Plaza”- East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
“Soundstair: BOS Sci Muse”- Museum of Science, Boston, MA
“Soundstair: Minnesota”- Minnesota Museum of Science, St. Paul, MN
“Soundstair: Macon”- Macon Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, GA
“Soundstair: Charleston”- South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, SC
“Touch My Building”- Bank of America Parking Structure, Charlotte, NC
“Turn Up the Heat”- Scoreboard in the American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL
“Whistle Grove”- Cincinnati, OH

Visit Christopher Janney’s website for more about him and his work