Music + Architecture = Urban Musical Instruments

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on August 8, 2016 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, Arts, Design

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Christopher Janney SM ’78

Artist, musician, and architect Christopher Janney greeted students at a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last January as they encountered an interactive 7-by-32-foot wall that produces light, harmonic tones, and indigenous bird songs in response to touch.

His artwork, titled Light Shadow: MLK, made the young teens, a notoriously tough crowd, laugh out loud with curiosity and delight. This project, the latest in the series of works he calls urban musical instruments, reflects a 40-year career blending music and architecture.

Janney studied architecture at Prince­ton University and played in countless experimental jazz and rock bands, but his professional horizons broadened when he befriended two legendary creators: sculptor Isamu Noguchi and composer John Cage.

He arrived at MIT in 1976 to study with the new director of the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, artist Otto Piene. Janney, who stayed for 10 years as a research fellow, created a master’s thesis that became the prototype for Soundstair, a responsive musical staircase he has since re-­created at Boston’s Museum of Science, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and elsewhere in the world. Kids and parents, the frisky and the ill, find moments of delight and curious inquiry as they produce music moving up and down stairways.

His work, which he describes as “sometimes making architecture more spontaneous and, other times, music more physical,” includes the Miami Heat Arena’s anemone-like scoreboard and a collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov that allowed the dancer to perform to a soundtrack of his own real-time heartbeat. When Janney built the device used inHeartBeat for the first time, he found, as he often does, that he learned from the artwork itself.

“When I finally got it built and first turned it on, it was far more powerful than in my imagination,” he says. “It opened my mind to another level of awareness.”

Janney, who is based in Lexington, Massachusetts, resides in a house he renovated as a “musical instrument for living.” Images of the structure are in his book, Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments of Christopher ­Janney. A 4,000-square-foot studio out back contains his current projects, which include a 1975 Porsche 911 that he’s converting into an electric car. He and his wife, Terrell Lamb, have two adult children: Freddy, a musician/songwriter in Los Angeles, and Lilli, a video editor in New York. Visit his website janneysound.com to explore his work, or contact him directly by e-mailing info@janneysound.com.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine. 

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