LCD Soundsystem frontman wants to make New York subway beeps into 'symphony'

The former LCD Soundsystem frontman wants to replace the off-key bleeps on subway turnstiles make with soothing musical notes – but the MTA is a tough sell

For a man who’s made a living colliding sounds, the tonal beep of the New York City subway turnstiles at rush hour is the soundtrack of James Murphy’s nightmares.

The former LCD Soundsystem frontman, audiophile and noted New York subway superfan, wants to change the sound of the subway turnstile into something more melodic – even beautiful.

“Subway Symphony is a little idea I had to change the sound of the subway turnstiles into different pieces of music, depending on what station you’re entering,” Murphy explains in a new video that launched on Tuesday as part of a campaign (supported by brewing giant Heineken) to rally support for the project.

Murphy has been working on this idea for the past 20 years, after being inspired by the soothing sounds of the subway systems in cities such as Tokyo and Barcelona.

“If rush hour, when it’s the most busy, can actually wind up having the most musical complexity; it would be almost the most beautiful time,” Murphy told the Guardian. “It feels like a nice gift that can be given to riders for their patronage.”

When the producer learned that Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees New York City’s transportation system, wanted to phase out the swipe system and replace it with an electronic system starting in 2019, he said he thought: “Now is my chance!”

“When you grow up there you’re going to know your music and where you went to school and where you went to work, where you lived,” Murphy said. “And later on you’re going to hear music that uses that sequence in a song … and it’s going to make you nostalgic.”

Murphy stressed that the project wasn’t meant as a criticism of the subway system. Quite the opposite, he said. Murphy does not believe the grinding beeps are worthy of such a magnificent transportation system.

“The crown jewel of New York City is the subway system,” Murphy said. “And anything that shows its importance and makes it a little more friendly is not going to be a nightmare for people.”

To make this idea a reality, Murphy partnered with Heineken as part of its Open Your City campaign to improve urban cities. On Tuesday, they debuted a video that previews some of the possible sound sequences and lays out their vision for the project. Murphy and Heineken also launched a website that will release a series of shorts on the project that explain why they think it’s important and the positive impact it would have on riders.

“The one thing in New York City that is 100% egalitarian, the one thing that says you can live anywhere in the furthest borough and work in the furthest opposite end, is the metro system,” Murphy said.

“I would argue that the people who really think [Subway Symphony] doesn’t matter, maybe they have havens away from sound. Some people don’t. Some people live in a lot of noise all the time and for them it might be a nice respite from a rough city.”

But despite the enthusiasm and the grassroots campaigning, the MTA has dismissed the project as a non-starter.

“It’s a very cool idea,” said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg. “The problem is that the tones that you hear in the subway turnstile are there as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act so that our visually impaired customers will be able to tell if their subway swipe was accepted.”

The beep system, he explained, may not make music, but it’s vital to riders with visual impairments: one beep means sufficient fare, two beeps means swipe again, and three beeps means insufficient fare.

“In order to accomplish this project, which would be really cool, we’d have to mess with something that is vital for people who are visually impaired and we can’t do that,” Lisberg said.

Murphy and Heineken said they are working with disability rights groups and experts to address these concerns, and believe they have a solution that is even more optimized for riders with visual impairments.

“We’re very aware that there’s a lot more important things that the MTA should be doing,” said Quinn Kilbury, senior director of marketing at Heineken. “That’s why we’re trying to coordinate all of the different steps. Basically, we want to pick up the tab on this.

The partners say the “civic project” is low-cost, and would give each turnstile a four-note sequence that would harmonize with other turnstiles. The idea is that each station would have its own unique tonal base, which Murphy said he hopes will deepen the connection residents have with the city. They hope to present the project to the MTA by the end of the year.

Lisberg acknowledge their efforts, but said they should not be surprised by the outcome.

“As a condition of their filming in the subway system,” Lisberg said, “we made them sign an agreement acknowledging that this can’t be done.”


Lauren Gambino in New York

The GuardianTramp

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