Experiencing Space, Sound and Immersive Color: Christopher Janney’s “Urban Musical Instruments”

By: Jason Lahman for CODAworx

Traversing the Path of Subtle Sound and Deep Color

In mythologies the world over, the rainbow is a bridge or causeway between different dimensions; nature’s great prismatic arc becomes a link between the mundane and the ethereal. Artist, architect, and composer Christopher Janney has spent many years plumbing the seemingly endless possibilities of this incredibly fecund phenomenon. Trained as an architect and musician at Princeton and MIT, Janney creates works of art that can best be described as interactive spaces where patterns of changing sound and color stimulate the imagination.

Christopher Janney "Harmonic Convergence"

“Harmonic Convergence,” Miami International Airport, exterior [photo credit: Robin Hill]

"Harmonic Convergence" Christopher Janney

“Harmonic Convergence,” Miami International Airport, interior [photo credit: Robin Hill]

“’Harmonic Convergence‘ was created in part to help people feel grounded – even as they move through the sometimes frenetic experience of travel. It’s not just about immersing them in the fullness of color; it’s about bringing the rich soundscape of the local natural environment into that experience.” Janney’s sound-score that echoes gently as travelers move through his rainbow bridge was created by sampling the Florida Everglades, southeastern birdsongs and underwater sounds. There are also sampled acoustic instruments that trigger on the hour, making “Harmonic Convergence” both a soothing habitat and gentle clock.

Christopher Janney

“Rainbow Cove Green and Rainbow Cove Red,” Logan International Airport
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

Janney’s lifelong interest in the intersection of form, color, and sound is part of a venerable tradition stretching back centuries. In the 4th century BC, Pythagoras was famous for illustrating the relationships between musical notes and physical form, culminating in the “Harmony of the Spheres.” In the 18th century, artists and composers developed the “color organ,” exploring “visual music.” Later, artists became obsessed with the idea of synesthesia – how the experience of one sense could cross over to the experiences normally associated with another: i.e. the hearing of color, the seeing of sound, music turned into something palpable that could be touched or felt. Again the concept of the bridge is found in Janney’s thinking about these works: “I often say that ‘sound is an invisible color’ and have created a series of wall sculptures exploring this concept.” (see image below.)

CJGoethe

“Goethe is credited with saying that architecture is frozen music. This is more than just an analogy for me – it is very real and very much based in a physical experience. I like the idea of creating deliberate situations where people can experience multiple senses harmonized in a new way.”

 

“Passing Light,” San Antonio Airport  [photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

“Passing Light,” San Antonio Airport
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

 

The Power of “Urban Musical Instruments”

 

urban musical instruments

“Everywhere is the Best Seat,” Montclair State University
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

playing urban musical instruments

Playing one of the illuminated rhythmic columns,
“Everywhere is the Best Seat”
[photo credit: Alexandra Pais/for The Star-Ledger]

“I love the John Cage quote ‘Everything you do is music and everywhere is the best seat.’” says Janney. “The sounds around us hold endless possibilities if we can only open our ears and listen.” Out of this belief, Janney has devoted a great deal of his life to helping the public move toward this realization. “My ‘Urban Musical Instruments’ are key to understanding my philosophy of art. I’ve composed and created for the stage, for dance companies and collaborated with other composers. But expanding that concept to the public environment, that creates what I call a “social foil;” catalyzing people in a social setting to interact with each other creatively.”

Named for the John Cage quote mentioned above, “Everywhere is the Best Seat”, is Janney’s reinvention in a WPA amphitheater, turning it into an environmental musical instrument: each level contains a series of columns that play different rhythms at the touch of a hand. “In these works, I control the melody and harmony, but the public generates the rhythmic content by how and when they trigger any of the elements. This encourages endless experimentation and sonic permutations.”

light shadow

Christopher Janney at work on “Light Shadow”
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

interactive art

School children interacting with “Light Shadow”
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

This kind of interactive work can also be a catalyst for education; these instruments can function as a laboratory. That belief is evident in Janney’s large wall work created for the MLK School in Cambridge, MA. Using his signature techniques of composing with percussion and sampled sounds from nature and programming these musical elements to respond to human movements, “Light Shadow: MLK” acts as a kind of magical wall of sound. The piece is triggered by bodies moving past its glimmering sensors. “Christopher has made a work of art that responds to whole-body engagement… prompting a sense of wonder and delight for all ages,” says Lillian Hsu, Director of Public Art and Exhibitions for the school district.

Playfulness, a sense of wholeness and integration of sensorial phenomena, all work together to bring a sense of sheer joy. The word “school” is derived from the Greek word for leisure, a place of instruction apart from labor. These pieces partake in this multilayered etymology – learning, playing, enjoying together through the spontaneity of sound.

Dream Forests, Harmonic Riddles, Colored Glass Canopies

 

sonic forest

“Sonic Forest” which has toured the USA and Europe.
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

Along with encouraging creative play in social spaces and soothing the weary traveler, Janney’s large collaborative pieces are also about enchantment and mystery. By night, works like “Sonic Forest” become luminous realms where people can control magical effects as in a lucid dream – brilliant light shows and weaving music through their bodily movements. “Sonic Forest” has been a fan favorite at major music festivals including Lincoln Center, Bonnaroo, Coachella, ULTRA in the USA to Hyde Park Calling, Glastonbury and the London Olympics in the UK. Most recently, CREOS has signed on to include “Sonic Forest On Tour” as one of its principle artworks for upcoming city festivals worldwide.

In “Touch my Building” entire structures become like the legendary sphinx asking those passing by to solve a riddle. There are variations on this work, which is site-specific, but each incarnation of “Touch my Building” has as its goal to challenge people to physically, intellectually and emotionally engage with the facade. For those willing to spend some time with the musical refrains, sound collages and even the recitation of poems that are the hallmarks of “Touch my Building,” a deeper world of music and meaning unfolds. The riddles posed, once solved, release new musical combinations or pairings of colorful lights and sounds. Here architecture, musical instruments and synesthesia collapse into one total work, a Gesamtkunstwerk, of interactive art.

interactive installation

“Touch my Building,” a series of installations that transform the facades of buildings, (including one commissioned by the Center for Architecture in New York) into musical riddles asking to be solved by passersby.
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

Janney’s latest chromatic creation is a 4,000 square foot glass canopy of transparent green and blue glass, which incorporates his signature sound concepts via 24 speakers connected to hand-shaped sensors. Janney has a long relationship with children’s hospitals for which he has designed a number of installations including two “Soundstair” installations, one for St. Jude’s in Memphis and one in Boston. “Seeing the effect that this can have on the children’s deep emotional impact is quite moving. I have seen children at the top of the “Soundstair,” in tears and then laughing in delight by the time they get to the bottom.”

A devotion to the transformational work of public art via sound, form, and color is central for everything Janney makes. As the CBS This Morning journalist Martha Teichner remarked, “He seeks to transform a place into a moment, a form into a feeling as if it is alive. Like some sleeping soul, it will wait for someone to come along and awaken it.”

“Harmonic Grove”, Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital [photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

“Harmonic Grove”, Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital
[photo credit: ©PhenomenArts, Inc.]

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