Skip to content ↓

Janney and Baryshnikov create electrocardio-choreography

When Mikhail Baryshnikov performs "HeartBeat:mb" this week as part of the White Oak Dance Project, he won't be dancing to classical ballet music by Tchaikovsky or Copland. Instead, he'll be accompanied by sounds generated by his own body through a device created by interactive architecture artist and composer Chris Janney, who received the SM in visual studies from MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) in 1978.

Mr. Janney first conceived "HeartBeat" in 1981 when he was a research fellow at the CAVS. The work was premiered by Sara Rudner of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1983.

The bioengineering device, developed by Transkinetics, Inc., captures the electrical impulses to the heart and surrounding muscles via wireless telemetry. Placed on the performer's chest and amplified through filters and a sound system designed by Mr. Janney, the machine provides a percussive track layered over music based on jazz scat and Indian tabla rhythms and Mr. Janney's recitation of medical texts.

"The pace of the thump-thump-thump both elicits his movement and reacts to it," wrote Newsweek in January. "Baryshnikov is practically translucent here: we see the still unsurpassed elegance of his classical technique, but we see it shaping moves that emanate directly from his personality, his very blood and breath."

Mr. Janney has been working on interactive architectural sound and light installations since 1989. He is best known locally for his "Soundstair" in Boston's Museum of Science, a project similar to one he created while at MIT, in which musical sounds are triggered by a person's movements up and down a flight of stairs. Mr. Janney is a professor in the School of Architecture at Cooper Union College in New York City, where he teaches Sound as a Visual Medium.

Last week, Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts asked him about the HeartBeat project.

LH: What prompted the creation of "HeartBeat"?

CJ: When I developed the piece, my father had recently died of a heart attack (in 1979) and the Jarvik-7 artificial heart had been invented (in 1983). These coincidental events made me ponder the juxtoposition of the heart as both a sophisticated pump and as the seat of the soul, as we've read in literature and poetry. The medical-text section of the score is about the heart's function as an almost totally cold, anesthetic machine. The other end of the spectrum is the score's inclusion of the music of Barber and the whispered track singing jazz scat phrases. The heart is really a machine that gives life, just as rhythm is the foundation of life.

How did Baryshnikov become aware of the "HeartBeat" project?

About two years ago, Misha [Baryshnikov] asked Sara Rudner to create something for his company. Sara and I thought that while it would be nice to create something for Baryshnikov's company, it would be even better for him to do "HeartBeat" as a solo. He premiered the piece in Paris and New York City and is performing in Boston as the first stop in a ten-city US tour.

Was there a lot of change in the choreography from Ms. Rudner's version to Mr. Baryshnikov's?

As a structured improvisation, it's completely different. The exploration of structured improvisation is a whole new thing for Misha. I'm the creator and composer and the choreographic direction is by Sara, but the actual improvisational movement is by Misha.

So that is why the title includes the initials ":mb"?

I've done it in many different ways over the last 20 years, so I've always called it "HeartBeat" and then added something that's more of an identification than a metaphor.

Does the musical accompaniment also vary?

I originally wrote the piece for three singers, performing jazz scat and tabla rhythms over the rhythm of the heart, which of course speeds up and slows down, causing the singers to follow the rhythm of the performer's heartbeat. Since Misha travels with a string quartet and a concert pianist, I scored it into a sampler keyboard, which looks like a piano but can create any sound you want. I recorded my voice reciting the various numbers and medical phrases and then the keyboardist plays it in time to Misha's heartbeat. In this particular variation, the string quartet plays Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings as the third section. Because it's just for strings with no percussion, the heartbeat and the strings co-exist quite well.

As an improvisation, how do the musicians know when the piece is over?

It's like jazz. There are sections and subsections, but Misha decides how long he wants to stay in one section or how fast he wants to move in a particular section. It's left up to the moment. The musicians watch Misha for their cues.

How many variations of "HeartBeat" have there been?

Too many to count, and not just in dance. I've often lectured while wearing the "HeartBeat," to hear my heart as I talk about my projects. I've done pieces with poets who read over the sound of their heartbeat. On May 5 in New York City, the jazz sax player Stan Strickland played over the sound of his heartbeat with two singers and myself doing the voice parts.

I even put the "HeartBeat" device on my son during his christening when he was one year old. Stan played a flute piece, in the church, over my son's heartbeat. My son is the only one I can think of who was not consciously a performer, aware of what was going on. It was a very beautiful piece.

Do you record these events?

I don't record much. The whole idea of structured improvisation is about being present in the moment. It's very hard to get a sense of this piece from a recording or even from a video tape. The theater's large sound system provides a lot of rich low end which feels like a blanket of sound just wrapping around you. It's very hard to recreate that in video or audio, so I don't try much. I just urge people to come see the real thing.

"Heartbeat:mb" plays Thursday-Sunday, May 14-17 at Boston's Shubert Theater. Tickets are available through Telecharge at (800- 447-7400).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 13, 1998.

Related Topics

More MIT News