Dirk Knemeyer

The Digitial Life #259: Exploring the Hidden Music

This week on The Digital Life, our special guest is Christopher Janney, a pioneer in the field of sound art, merging architecture, sound, light, and interactive technology. For over 30 years, Janney has been blending music and light with the physical space in unexpected ways, including public art installations like Soundstair, which can be viewed at the Boston Museum of Science, and the playful Rainbow Cove at Logan Airport. Janney famously worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov on “Heartbeat:mb”, which used a medical sensor to monitor Baryshnikov’s heartbeat to provide the rhythmic music to his dancing. Janney is bringing his show, “Exploring the Hidden Music”, to the Boston University Dance Theater on Friday, June 8th at 8 pm. Join us as we discuss art at the intersection of music, architecture, and technology.


“Exploring the Hidden Music” at BU

Janney Sound


Jon: Welcome to episode 259 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings listeners.

Jon: This week on the show, our special guest is Christopher Janney of PhenomenArts, Inc. a pioneer in the field of sound art, merging architecture, sound, light and interactive technology. For over 30 years, Janney has been blending music and light in the physical space in very unexpected ways. His work invites the public to engage and connect. Christopher, welcome to the show.

Christopher: Very nice to be here, thanks for having me.

Jon: So, you’re bringing your show, Exploring the Hidden Music to the Boston University dance theater on Friday, June 8th at 8 pm, and we encourage our listeners to check out that event. Could you talk a little bit about the musical collaborators and the dance collaborators who are featured in this performance and tell us a little bit about how this group came together?

Christopher: Sure. So, Exploring the Hidden music is a concept that I’ve been pursuing now for about to, six or eight years. The idea that, for me, hidden music is music that is within things that we might see and that could take us all the way back to the fourth century B.C. with Pythagoras, and the notion of rhythm within design. And also, and then forward into the Renaissance, where we see the relationship between music, literally harmonic music in the church and harmonic design in the architecture. And so, of the Hidden Music, Exploring the Hidden Music is really just a catch-all phrase for me to talk about or for me to think about the kinds of things that I’m exploring, both musically and visually. In this particular concert, I have one of my all-time brother from another mother, Stan Strickland, he and I have been making music since the early 80s. And it actually began with he and I just starting to talk again over Christmas. Of course, during the Super Bowl. And thought, you know, it’s time that we explore together again.

Christopher: And so, he had been doing some work with a keyboardist, Josh Rosen, who I’ve worked with before also. And the three of us sort of embarked from there, thinking about different pieces of music that I wanted to bring, and that they wanted to bring. And from there, we added three singers. And I wanted to always to finish the concert with a version of Heartbeat, which is the piece I did, began in the early 80s, actually, with Sarah Rudner from Twyla Tharp Dance, and then set it on Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2000. And that’s always been a piece that I continued to explore, I continue to think about new ways and different ways to use it as an instrument of expression.

Jon: Yeah, I think that piece, in particular is highly relevant to our audience, you know, their interests, not only music but emerging technologies. Because that, from what I understand, came from some of your work at MIT where you had a medical sensor that was attached to the body and could, you know, pick up the human heartbeat and sort of, you know, make that the instrument that the dancer was articulating their dance moves to. I think that’s very interesting to me how you’ve incorporated sensors into your work, both on you know, the pieces that you’ll be doing you know, in June at Boston University as well as all the public art pieces that you’ve done over the years. Could you talk a little bit about how sensors have played a role in your artistic vision?

Christopher: Yeah, sure. Well, you know, I think as an architect and as a musician, sometimes I’m trying to make architecture more like music. Trying to make it more spontaneous, more alive. And then, on the other times, trying to make music more like architecture. Trying to make it more physical, more visual. Heartbeat is certainly an example of the latter. And the former, in terms of trying to make architecture more like music, in the mid-70s, even when I was doing my graduate work at MIT, it was initially this idea of how to plug music into the architectural environment. And infrared sensors, sonic sensors, different things that I could use to basically make the real world, not the virtual world, I think that’s the important distinction, but to make the real world somehow an interactive component of the music. Or, in the case of the installations, really allowing the people’s movement through space to actually be a component in what shapes the sounds that they’re hearing.

Christopher: So, I think the fundamental ideas, what today is called “physical computing.” Which is, now they teach it in a number of schools, even music schools, where basically, students are looking for ways to plug the computer into the real world. Whether its sensors on plants, and getting a sense of, “Well, do they have some kind of rhythm and movement as they grow?” To, you know, shooting cameras at clouds and how they move across the sky, and let that be some kind of aspect that influences the musical composition. But it is that way of sort of taking it out of the theater, out of the performance space and putting it in the street. And I think that that’s always been a big interest of mine. Sort of, using music to sort of help people connect with their physical environment. Have some sense of ownership, that, in fact, when I touch this building, I actually trigger a sound, or a light lights up. So, I can have a physically, I can play with the architecture, as it were. And I think that begins to change the paradigm about how people might live and perceive, and especially in an urban environments.

Dirk: But, that felt very compelling. And you did, as you were talking, draw the distinction between the virtual world and the real world. The things that are compelling about the real world are obvious and exciting, but why doesn’t the virtual world also interest you? I know one of the things we talk about a lot on the show is the way that mixed realty, virtual reality, augmented reality is where technology is heading fairly quickly. Why have you not have explored that more? Taking some of the same ethos that has allowed you do to some lovely things in the real world and play with them in the virtual?

Christopher: Yeah, you know, as an artist, you don’t live in a world of logic. You live in a world of intuition. And you know, I’m happy to sit here and tell you what I’ve done and how it came about. That’s not, in fact, necessarily the truth of how it occurred.

Christopher: A lot of times in the artist’s world, I find the solution before I find the problem. And I think, just as my training and my interest has always been in architecture and music, its, the architectural side has been in the real world. In the physical. I was raised in Washington DC, both my, my father worked in the government, my mother was a schoolteacher, where weren’t a lot of artists around for me to mentor. But there was a whole lot of social consciousness in the 60s, especially in Washington DC. And that was a big thing in my family. So, you know, sort of, thinking about ways that you can affect social change in the physical world was something I thought a lot about. It’s not that I’m not interested in what’s going on in the virtual world, especially socially, where we have, you know, some fantastic, you know, multi-speaker environments and things of that effect. But I’m not for putting something over my eyes and something over my ears to take me out of the physical world. I’m not saying there aren’t good things that can be done with that. But you know, my interest is really about being in the street. And I have yet to understand how I could walk around in the street with my eyes covered and my ears covered. So, that’s where I stand.

Dirk: Fair enough.

Jon: I’m afraid that we’re all gonna have to do that to survive the next couple of years. The, you know, one of the things that I find fascinating about some of your, you know, public art pieces is how it humanizes spaces that are otherwise seemingly, you know, cold or inaccessible. So, I mean, the places that your transforming with you know, some of your public art, including, like the sound stair, for instance. Turning a staircase, which is a transitional environment, at best, something that I race through, right, on the way to the subway or on the way to an appointment, right? Now, becomes a playful place. Similarly, the parking garage. You couldn’t have picked a more difficult, you know, environment to be in, the parking garage at Logan Airport in Boston is, you know, the ascent to Hades, maybe. But you’ve made it, you know, a delightful, you know, rainbow light and fun to be around. When you’re first, you know, addressing a piece and thinking about the interactions, you know-

Dirk: Intuition, Jon. Not thinking.

Jon: What, like, how do you approach making a, you know, a difficult space playful. What, how do you find that inspiration to, you know, transform those spaces?

Christopher: Sure. You know, when I first thought about Soundstair at MIT, 1976, ’77, it was obviously to me in about a minute, because I would look at a stairway, and I would see people ascending or descending through space, and I have probably a slight case of synesthesia, and I could hear, and I could see the rhythmic patterns of their footsteps, and I could hear that in my head. And ascending, you know, moving through space with ascending tones, and descending with descending. So, it’s very important to me that the initial, that the fundamental idea be as simple and as clear as possible, especially when you’re gonna do something in the public realm. You know, people aren’t, you have to at least make the first level of it, it can be multi-dimensional, but it has to be almost as obviously like, “touch here,” okay?

Dirk: Yeah.

Christopher: So, when I’m asked to design a piece for a space, you know, I’m basically looking at it as visual music. I’m watching the rhythmic patterns of the people moving through the space. I’m sort of seeing where people stop or turn or, for whatever reason, the space is pushing them to go one way or the other, as in the case of Logan Airport. “Okay, what do people do here that is interactive?” “Well, the touch the buttons on the elevators.” So, okay, there’s a link where they’re gonna have to do this physical motion, let’s turn that into some kind of sonic event. So, you know, basically the, from, as an architect, my sight analysis is really looking at is as a piece of visual music. And from there, trying to keep it on that plane of just playful curiosity. Try to just coax out that muse and let that muse just look and watch and think, and then, from there, think about how the, how the kind of things that I do might easily integrate into what’s there.

Dirk: As a designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about unintended consequences in the things that I create. When I hear an elevator, the buttons having different tones, I think about people going in and pushing all of the buttons.

Christopher: Sure.

Dirk: And disrupting the function of the elevator. Are there any of those sort of, unintended consequences when you’re trying to bring sort of, you know, delight and immersion and wonderful moments into environments that are generally intended to be efficient in terms of how they’re used. Have you run into any of that in your many experiences here?

Christopher: Yeah. Well, that’s a good question. I don’t, I don’t experience it so much, I haven’t seen it so much in the permanent installations like parking garages and the New York City subway. I mean, people aren’t generally, especially in the morning in the subway, they’re very focused on getting to work. So, the might must hold up their newspaper as they go by the piece reach and trigger the melodic tones on their way to work. In the afternoon when you know, people are a little more relaxed and they’re through their business day, and the trains don’t move quite as fast, you see people start to play more. You, I think the power of the sound, especially in that installation, is there to push against the anxiety that people feel in the subway. I mean, you’re underground in a totally man-made environment, but your ears are hearing the sounds of a rainforest. So, that kind of provocative curiosity can focus the energy. Now, that’s not to say, I can see where somebody tried to take a baseball bat to my artwork, but you know, that’s one reason why I build it out a quarter-inch aluminum plate.

Christopher: It was, “okay, you have to think about things like that.” And of course, the touring piece of mine, Sonic Forest, which I’ve toured to many, many music festivals in the US and Europe, and we’re actually gonna do it for Hub Week this year, and again at the new development Union Point. A music festival has 100,000 people, there’s all kinds of things that can pull your consciousness one way or the other. There’s at least one who’s gonna try to mess it up.

Dirk: Yeah, sure, yeah.

Christopher: Okay, so, in a case like that, you know, we always have security nearby.

Dirk: Sure.

Christopher: As there is at a music festival in that kind of environment. And you know, couple times I’ve had to intercede and try to talk somebody down. But somebody’s gonna try to trash it, let ’em trash it. Because hopefully the rest of the people there will say “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?” And so, it’s not for me to try and push people to do or not to do what they want. It’s a little bit in the John Cage condition where, I set the piece up, and then I’m there just with everybody else observing what can and cannot happen. Now, doesn’t mean I haven’t tweaked Sonic Forest over the years and try to think of ways, “Okay, there’s way that I can make this so you can’t turn these things over.” Because I know somebody’s inevitability’s gonna try. But, you know, that’s part of being out in the real world, isn’t it?

Dirk: Yeah.

Christopher: You know, this is not something, this is not a panacea that I have here, and it’s not something that’s gonna make everybody’s, elevate everybody’s consciousness. But, you know, I’m still interested to be out there, and try to make these things happen and see how they do change as people, do change people’s perception of space.

Dirk: Yeah. Excuse me, that’ll be edited. Are there any sort of, recent, in the last couple of years, or current or upcoming technologies that you’re particularly excited about because you’re so aggressive in using technology and creative ways. Is there anything that you’ve really been jazzed about, either that you’re already using, or that you’re planning to use?

Christopher: Well, you know, there’s been a lot of development with audio speaker sensors that can go on glass. And that translates, turns the glass into the speaker. So, literally, it’s vibrating the glass.

Dirk: Interesting.

Christopher: And so, you know, in a case where I do installations on the façade of a building at the ground level, this, to me is a solution to a problem I’ve had. I don’t have to have any audio speakers. I can literally … And that also just artistically, “Okay, whoa, wait a minute, now I can actually, the glass, which is part of the building is now really, really embedded as part of the artwork.”

Jon: Wow.

Christopher: So, you know, I don’t want to make that invention, I don’t want to improve that invention, I have a way to use it and I’m sort of you know, working with a couple of companies that are improving and developing it, but that’s a piece of technology that I look forward to using.

Dirk: That’s cool.

Jon: That’s-

Christopher: ‘Cause how it integrates with my work with the architecture of my piece.

Jon: Yeah, that feels like you could do some scary and very cool things with that. Oh, you know, the building, say, skyscraper, there’s so much glass to utilize.

Christopher: That’s, okay, well, that’s an imagination at work right there.

Jon: So, Christopher, you’ve worked with, you know, pretty much a who’s who of jazz musicians and musicians and general and dancers, architects. You know, who are the people who you like to work with? You know, or that you’d imagine collaborating with?

Christopher: Well, a lot of ’em are dead. You know, Miles Davis, I did have a conversation with him once, you know, but I couldn’t make it happen, right? Jimi Hendrix, you know, all these great people that, whose music really inspired me, but on the other hand, you know, that’s a reason to take that energy and think about, you know, okay, who is manifesting that energy, that zeitgeist at this time? And you know, there’s a number of visual, Anish Kapoor, who’s a great visual artist, and whose work I really admire, you might know him by the bean in Chicago, that’s his piece. And certainly any, you know, it’s funny because there’s a number of writers and filmmakers, like the Coen brothers, or the Nolan brothers. I mean, Memento is like, one of my all-time most favorite movie.

Jon: Fantastic film.

Christopher: I just watched it again a week ago.

Dirk: I watch it again every couple of years.

Christopher: Holy Shazoli. Just the way it can, not just the story, but the form of the medium, the way they use that, and you know, they had two stories at once, one’s going backwards, one’s going forwards, it’s just fantastic. And you know, someone like Aaron Sorkin, you know, I love pretty much anything that he writes.

Dirk: I’d love to see him work with Shane Carruth, if you know who Shane is.

Christopher: Yeah, sure, sure. I mean, every idea begins with a thought, all right? And so, the writer, especially in television and film media, that’s where its, that’s the spark, okay? If you think that in fact art or invention or genius, as Edison said, “Is one percent inspiration and 99 perspiration.” Sure. But that one percent, if you don’t have that one percent, you don’t have that spark. It’s not gonna light. It’s not gonna go. And it’s the writers and where the idea is created. I’m not saying it doesn’t develop and you know, all kinds of things happen, but that spark has to be there. And you know, after a while, you know, you watch or read you know, things by Aaron Sorkin, or Walter Isaacson, I mean, all the different biographies, and you say like, “This guy knows how to generate a spark. So, I would be really great to hang out with him, and just see where it goes.”

Jon: Sounds fantastic. Christopher, thanks so much for joining us on the show today. We really appreciate your time. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time, just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you’ve liked. The music that you’ve heard throughout the show, interspersed with our conversation is courtesy of Christopher Janney, and should remind you that his upcoming performance is that the Boston University dance theater, Exploring the Hidden Music will be on Friday, June 8th at 8 pm. You can find The Digital Life show on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on twitter at jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O .com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on twitter at dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening. Christopher, how can our listeners get in touch with you?

Christopher: Yes, well, you can certainly go to www.janneysound, that’s J-A-N-N-E-Y-S-O-U-N-D .com, and from there, there’s a link where you can send me some email, or if you can remember this or write it down, info, I-N-F-O @janneysound.com and look forward to interacting with anybody who’d like to send along an email.

Jon: Thanks again, Christopher. So, that’s it for episode 259 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.


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