Thursday, May 8, 2008

A popular art installation at Coachella 2008

As Death Cab for Cutie's Indio set wound down on April 26, I had a chance to talk with Christopher Janney about his audio architecture - one of many fascinating art installations at the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

After walking through the gates to the Empire Polo Field grounds, I was immediately struck by Janney's Sonic Forest.

Making its West Coast debut after previously gracing Bonnaroo and England's Glastonbury and Download music festivals (2005-2007), the "forest" consists of 16 blue poles (each with four sensors) in four rows. Each one had a white light on top and a place marked for people to put their hands over a hole. Once they did, a variety of nature and percussion sounds emanated at different speeds.

Trained as an architect and jazz musician, Janney started the PhenomenArts multi-media studio in 1980. He has created permanent interactive sound/light installations and performances that attempt to make architecture more spontaneous(Harmonic Runway, Miami Airport; REACH: NY, 34th St. subway, New York) and music more physical (Heartbeat:mb, Mikail Baryshnikov).

A book on his work, "Architecture of the Air," was released in February 2007. Beatles producer Sir George Martin called Janney's designs "a revelation. He straddles the worlds of architecture and music as though they compromise a single sphere."

While seeing concertgoers try to figure out how the forest worked, Janney explained the piece had a "day sensibility and night sensibility. At night, it gets wilder and more raunchy."

"If one person walked through, you'd only hear a bell," he explained. "The more hands there are, sensors tell the computer (a MacBook Pro) it's a crowd and is going to get busy." Then the sounds (birds, wolves, loons, cows, drums, marimbas) expand.

A toddler gleefully runs through the installation as his mother waits patiently.

"It's a communal musical instrument," said Janney, as we watch them. "My goal is to put things in dense urban conditions where you'll find total strangers interacting in places like subways and convention center parking lots."

The sounds run in a cycle. It goes into bell mode during bands' sets, then breaks off into different instruments between sets.

Why paint the columns midnight blue?

"Picasso said, 'when I run out of red, I use blue.' It's intuitive. The design started in yellows and reds, but got too muddy."

When the forest travels to Zaragoza, Spain for the World's Fair next month, it will be colored silver.

"They said they didn't want it to be blue."

The columns are "built mostly out of aluminum - it's gotta be real-world sturdy. We had it at the Donnington Download (Metal) Festival in 2005." Those people "wanted to break it and kick at" the installation. "If it can survive that, it can get through anything."

When musicians were rehearsing for Coachella, Janney said Jack Johnson and his band came over and tried out the forest. "It expands people's horizons...and creates a painting in your mind to where you think you are."

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