Sure it's a jungle out there. Especially downtown near the Convention Center, where all the construction is going on, where trucks rumble angrily over the pitted streets spewing dust, smoke and noisy mechanical attitude. Where jackhammers assault the pavement, buzz saws scream against reluctant metal, and giant cranes invade the clouds carrying tons of mortar.
But somewhere amid the diesel and dust, the stacks of unused bricks and bags of Saylor's Type II cement mix, next to the scarred sign that says "Absolutely No Parking. Loading Dock," there is an oasis. The exact location is somewhere between the courtyard of Techworld Plaza and the inner folds of the brain. It's a place that is both real and imaginary, depending on your attitude, creativity and how late you are for that power lunch or "bored" meeting. It's a place where waves break into foam on a beach, angels play harps in ascending scales and birds twitter. And Christopher Janney created it all to help the harried, the hassled and the harangued escape the tumble, jumble and rumble of everyday life, work and heavy construction equipment.
"I try to deal with sound to generate visual images," says Janney of his "Sonic Pass/d.c.," an invisible "sound art" piece located in a temporary wooden walkway between the Techworld office complex and I Street NW. "You're hearing these sounds that are creating pictures in your mind. That's how it distinguishes it from music -- it's a movie inside the mind."
This is how it works: When someone walks through the passageway, eight infrared sensors in the walls are triggered. The sensors activate synthesized sounds -- bells, harp strings, waves, bird whistles, horse hoofs -- in a random fashion. "It's pretty improbable that you'll trigger it the same way twice," explains Janney, a former Washingtonian who is now an artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. "If one person is coming down the passageway, it will play the sequence entirely differently."
The effect is alternately trippy, new agey, startling, relaxing and intriguing. And that's all fine with Janney -- different perceptions are his goal.
"The art world is not whom I'm interested in, it's the public world," says Janney, who has a degree in architecture from Princeton. "I'm definitely interested in artwork that involves the participant, involves the viewer."
Although he calls himself a visual artist, Janney says the inspiration for his works comes from his experience in sound. A jazz drummer for many years, he also studied eurythmics ("the theory of sound and movement, not the group," he explains) at the Dalcroze School of Music in New York. Janney, 40, was "hanging around the New York art scene," building sets for plays, when he came upon the idea of combining his musical and architectural talents. "I used to walk out onto 73rd Street and the sounds of streets would become a symphony," he says. "I wanted to create a way to make architecture more spontaneous or perhaps to alter one's perception of architectural space. My proficiency was musical sound so I started tinkering away."
Indeed, his art these days seems directly rooted in the polyrhythms of city life and, more important, the essence of jazz: improvisation within structure, rhythm within chaos and dynamics within cacophony.
To some it's a wonderful distraction -- he has a commission to do a piece at the Nashville airport and is negotiating with Paris subway officials to install a sound sculpture there -- to some it's avant-garde art and to some it's noise. "In all my travels, there are three kinds of reactions I've categorized," says Janney. "There's the people who, no matter what you do, they're not going to hear a thing. It could be an atom bomb exploding. There's people who hear things I never put in the mix, people who have naturally fertile imaginations. Then there's the third kind, which is what most people are, and they're just plain curious."
"It's okay" is the way Carl Weathers described "Sonic Pass/d.c." as he pushed a cart of trash through the walkway. Weathers, who works for Techworld's housekeeping department, seemed oblivious as horses galloped around him and bells chimed in the hazy morning air. "I'm used to it. Now I don't even notice it anymore."