NYC Soundsystem: James Murphy in bid to create soundtrack for subways

Producer and artist has proposed to reconfigure the sounds of the New York underground with a series of three to five note sequences, all unique with one for each station

James Murphy wants to reconfigure the soundtrack of the New York subway system, proposing to turn “cacophony into music” with a new suite of turnstile beeps.

With the days of LCD Soundsystem behind him, Murphy has kept busy by producing records, scoring plays, making coffee, and designing an actual soundsystem. Now he wants to transform the music that undergirds the city where he lives, taking advantage of a changeover in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s turnstile technology to propose a “subway symphony”.

“The subway sounds quite brutal,” Murphy explained to the Wall Street Journal. Every time someone passes through a metal barrier, it emits an “unpleasant beep”. “There’s a missing opportunity,” he said “Why don’t we just make it a nice sound?”

Murphy lays out his idea on a new website, claiming that he has been “trying for 15 years” to bring his concept to the subway stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Currently, “each turnstile emits its own beep, all of which are slightly out of tune with one another, creating a dissonant rubbing-styrofoam-on-glass squeak in stations all around New York City,” he wrote. “What I propose to do is to create a series of three to five note sequences, all unique, one for each station in the subway system. These sequences will be part of an intersecting larger piece of music, which would run from station to station, and cross one another as, say, the 4, 5, 6 line (one musical piece) intersects with the L, N, R, Q and W (another musical piece) at Union Square.”

In addition to sounding pleasant, Murphy argues that each station’s distinctive musical sound will act as a mnemonic device. “People reading a magazine will hear their little melody before the station’s name is announced and know they’re home,” he wrote. “People who grew up with these sounds will hear a piece of music at an opera, or on an ad ... and feel a nostalgia for their first apartment, or their basketball practices.”

But although Murphy claims this is the perfect time to implement such a scheme, while subway bosses are shifting from swipe-cards to an Oyster-like “tap and ride” system, authorities at the MTA seem much less enthusiastic. Spokesman Adam Lisberg said that several people have already proposed similar ideas, and any modification to the city’s 3,289 turnstiles would require too much risk, time and money. The current beeps are apparently designed to help blind people navigate the subway, and the off-tune deviation between units is because of “natural technical variation and we really don’t care”.

For now, Murphy seems undeterred. “Please help me make our city just a little more kind,” he wrote, inviting supporters to sign an online petition.


Sean Michaels

The GuardianTramp

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