By Cable Neuhaus
October 08, 1979 12:00 PM

An unsuspecting visitor who sets foot on Christopher Janney’s staircase is in for a shock: At the first step, the stairs burst into music, loud and strong, which rises or falls on the scale, often in a cacophonous mix, as the guest ascends or descends. Any stairway can be fitted with the system—which consists of ankle-level infrared photoelectric lights wired to a computer, which in turn is connected to a synthesizer. Sounds are activated when feet trip the invisible beams of light.

Janney, 29, who is both a musician and an architect, manipulates the synthesizer so skillfully that footfalls can bring forth the sounds of oboes, flutes, drums or almost any other conventional instrument, but, he says, “I don’t see a great deal of value in copying sounds. The synthesizer has its own.” Audiences at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, where Soundstair was on display last summer, had mixed reactions—especially when crowds of people climbed the stairs. “About 20 percent said, ‘This is chaotic noise,’ ” recalls Janney. “But everyone else seemed to get a kick out of it.” That includes Joan Mondale, who pronounced her Soundstair trip “fascinating.” And Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace booked it next.

The unconventional son of a staid Washington, D.C. family (his late father was personnel director of the CIA, and his mother is executive director of the local Planned Parenthood chapter), Janney learned to play drums at 14, en route to Choate prep school. At Princeton he opted for architecture and graduated magna, after dropping out for a year to play in jazz-rock bands. In 1977, while studying environmental arts at M.I.T., he designed Soundstair for his Master’s thesis. “I wanted to find a bridge between architecture and music,” he says. Other Janney fusions include a sundial that creates music through light and shadow.

Well aware of the showbiz possibilities of Soundstair, Janney is contemplating hiring a manager to schedule a cross-country tour. “There’s a lot of Broadway in the invention,” he observes, “but that’s not what it’s really for. I think it can alter architectural givens. A heavy Victorian building could be transformed if flutelike notes were produced on its front steps. Still,” Janney adds, “I’d love to chat with Fred Astaire about Soundstair.”