By Kitty Merrill
He's an artist and musician, a composer and architect, a scientist and technician, a biologist, inventor, sculptor and producer. Is there anything Christopher Janney is not?
"Boring," he said with a chuckle during a recent interview.
In his performance piece "Heartbeat," Janney melds disciplines and talents into a single powerful evening of entertainment. Trained as an architect and jazz musician, Janney always worked to "make architecture more like music and music more like architecture." A recent series of sound sculptures, "Sound is An Invisible Color," reveals that music/art/architecture mash-up.
Speaking of great painters and musicians like David Hockney and Beethoven who were said to suffer from synesthesia, a neurological disorder marked by stimulation of one sense prompting the involuntary experience of another, Janney agreed it can be less of a disorder and more of an extraordinary talent. He believes he has a mild form of synesthesia as one who can sometimes hear color and see sound and feels most at home when melding the visual and sonic.
Next Tuesday, his sound sculptures will be on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton, serving as just one segment of the sensory experience in store for the audience.
The main event is a screening of What Is A Heart a film of the acclaimed "Heartbeat," a performance exploration Janney embarked upon three decades ago when his father died of a heart attack.
"The power of the sound of the heart is so fundamental. It's the first sound you hear; you hear it in the womb," Janney explained. An artist-in-residence at MIT back then, Janney had access to sophisticated technology that allowed him to blend music, dance, and the high-tech. He placed a wireless heart telemetry device on a ballet dancer and scored music to accompany the sound of his or her live heartbeat.
Twyla Tharp Dance's Sara Rudner and Mikhail Baryshnikov toured with earlier versions of "Heartbeat," eliciting different reactions from the audience. "Listening to this person's body becomes introspective… When we were with Mikhail, he was 50, so there were a lot of questions about mortality."
In the latest version, and in the documentary, former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates provides the literal heartbeat for a piece with "a soulful, gospel spiritual quality I really like," Janney said.
That quality is enhanced by a collaboration with The Persuasions, known as the Kings of a cappella.
"I saw The Persuasions when I was 16," Janney recalled. When the American Heart Association asked him to make a new version of "Heartbeat," he decided to use "the
fundamental, elemental" human voice to accompany Coates' heart sounds.
Legendary musician/producer Frank Zappa discovered the Persuasions and Janney reported, "I talked with [Persuasions front man] Jimmy Hayes and explained what I wanted to do and he said 'That's about the coolest thing since we played with Frank Zappa.'" Next Tuesday's event will open with a live performance by The Persuasions. They'll perform a set comprised of pieces Janney wrote and traditional pieces he arranged.
Janney's Hamptons connection is decades-deep. Back in the 70s, he lived in Bridgehampton for a bit as he developed a system for the creation of Jack Youngerman's outdoor sculptures that are currently on view at the LongHouse in East Hampton. At the time, Janney said, artists were beginning to focus on crafting large-scale sculptures. He provided the technical (architectural) expertise that allowed them to make their visions realities.
His own vision, following his father's death, involved using the human heartbeat as a percussion instrument. "To a cardiologist, the heart is a very sophisticated pump, but to a musician or poet, it's the seat of the soul. I try to explore it from those two areas . . . and in the finale they come together in a chaotic and operatic manner, because the heart is both those things."
The screening of What Is A Heart, live performance by The Persuasions, exhibit of Janney's sound sculptures, and a chance to meet the architect/musician/artist/ all take place Tuesday, beginning at 8 PM. Check the Guild Hall box office for ticket information.