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A Boston Artist And His Urban Musical Instruments

On a recent morning at Children’s Hospital in Boston, the main lobby sounded like a psychedelic musical experiment in a tropical rain forest. That’s because the hospital just installed “Soundstair,” designed by local artist Christopher Janney of Lexington.

The plans for Christopher Janney's thesis at MIT in 1978, which turned into "Soundstair." (Courtesy Christopher Janney)

CLICK TO ENLARGE: The plans for Christopher Janney's thesis at MIT in 1978, which turned into "Soundstair." (Courtesy)

When people walk up and down the stairs, they trip a series of photo-electric sensors on each step, which in turn, trigger notes on a scale and a series of bird, cricket and frog sounds.

“The basic idea is about animating space and sound,” Janney said.

Soundstair is brand new to Children’s Hospital, but it’s been in the Museum of Science for several years.

Janney is trained as a jazz musician and architect and his art reflects both of those disciplines. He has installed the same technology from Soundstair on a New York subway platform. He’s also designed jazz and dance pieces in which the rhythm and beat are generated by the the musician’s actual heartbeat.

Soundstair is Janney’s effort to get the public to interact with the spaces around them by transforming those spaces into jazz instruments.

“So the idea is that you have an aesthetic experience on your way to work,” he said.  “That’s really the fundamental premise of what I call my urban musical instruments[…]to allow people to creatively play in their every day life.”

While doctors, nurses and other adults went up and down the stairs apparently unaware of the instrument, 10 year old Carolyn Foppiano, who was visiting the hospital with her parents and two younger brothers, couldn’t resist it.

“It’s sort of like magic,” Carolyn said, as she danced up and down the steps, tripping the musical notes.  Carolyn also plays the recorder.  “But this is easier!”

As he watched Carolyn and her brothers on his Soundstair Janney beamed with pride.

”Picasso said it takes a long time to become young again,” Janney said.  “And that’s what this piece is about.”

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