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Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

January 26, 2005:


Christopher Janney ’72 wants pedestrians to interact with his artwork and each other.

Janney Art

Commuters create music at New York’s subway station at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue by running their hands in front of Christopher Janney ’72’s “Reach” sculpture. (photos courtesy Christopher Janney ’72)

Sound sculptures
Artist Christopher Janney ’72 creates urban art

It has happened at a subway station in Manhattan and the Spanish Steps in Rome, at the Miami Heat’s home basketball arena and the Sacramento airport. People pass through a public space and find themselves, intentionally or not, interacting with urban musical instruments created by artist Christopher Janney ’72. Travelers run their hands in front of a green hanging paneled box on the subway platform at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, producing a cascade of notes and playing an impromptu duet with the person on the other side. Other people walk underneath glass panels hovering over a pedestrian area at the airport and their motion prompts a chorus of sounds evoking the city.

Janney’s sound sculptures are diverse in appearance — some, like the subway platform’s “Reach,” blend unobtrusively into their environment, while others, like “Hyattsville Horn Section,” a group of brightly colored (and noisy) oversized musical instruments in Maryland, are impossible to miss. But the works have a common theme. Besides humanizing often-stark urban spaces, they help crack the isolation in which many of us go about our daily business. “They’re a foil for getting total strangers to interact with each other,” says Janney.

Janney has made a career and life out of creating these sound sculptures. Even at Princeton he knew he wouldn’t be able to fit his interests in visual arts, architecture, and music into one department, so after taking a year off, he was encouraged by mentor Michael Graves to take part in the nascent independent-concentration program and design his own major. Living in New York City after graduation, he built theater sets to pay the bills, played in bands, and soaked in the scene. “I was working up to being an artist,” he says. “I didn’t have a name for what I do, but I knew I was going to do it.” Later, he earned a master’s degree in environmental art at MIT, where he tapped the technological talent of those around him to bring his concepts to life. “There was someone there who could build anything I could think up,” he says. His artistic home base is now in Lexington, Mass., but he commutes to New York’s Cooper Union to teach a weekly class on sound as a visual medium.

Though most of his creations are meant to be touched, one of his favorite and most innovative creations is more ephemeral. “HeartBeat,” a dance piece choreographed and first performed by Sara Rudner and later by Mikhail Baryshnikov, is set to the sounds of the dancer’s own amplified heartbeats. At the end, the dancer turns off the sound machine. Every time Janney is in the audience, there’s a split second when he thinks that the dancer’s heart, not just the amplifier, has stopped. “Even though I know what’s coming,” he says, “it’s a surprise every time.”

By Katherine Hobson ’94

Katherine Hobson ’94 covers medicine at U.S. News & World Report.