Atlantic Cities

The Lost Arpeggios of Rush Hour

The Lost Arpeggios of Rush Hour
Susan NYC/Flickr

Watching the concert documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits last week, I remembered that James Murphy, in addition to writing the best song about New York since the heyday of Lou Reed, has an awesome idea for the NYC subway: musical turnstiles. The man behind LCD Soundsystem proposed the scheme at a talk at the Yale School of Art this spring, sitting opposite fellow rock star and budding urbanist David Byrne. The talk was supposed to focus on the boundaries between different art forms, but each singer ended up talking a lot about New York, Byrne showing off his bike racks and Murphy voicing this zany and brilliant idea (transcription courtesy of WNYC):

"All the subway turnstiles in New York City…make a beep. It’s a really unpleasant sound and the one that’s right next to it is slightly out of key with it. So, it’s like 'ehhh….aehhh…uehhh' Unless you get it wrong and it’s like, 'No!' Then it’s the sound of your bruised hip as you hit the thing…

So I thought, I love New York and I love its aggression, and I love that it doesn’t make it easier for you to be a member of the city…But, I wanted to change the sound of going through the turnstile to a series of notes - I could do a little program. I could be like, well, the dominant note is the root, this is the fifth, this is the third, have a couple of sevenths, throw a few sixths in there just to be crazy. And during rush hour it would make arpeggiated music. And each subway station could have its own key or tonal set. For me, for a new person going to work, I think it would just be nice. It would be hard not to like that more than 'shut up, idiot, you’re walking so slow!'

It would be an interesting way to have people relate to the city and I didn’t think it would be that expensive…if anybody knows anybody?"

Gothamist went so far as to contact the Metropolitan Transit Authority to test out Murphy's idea at the source. But the MTA's Kevin Ortiz responded with this rather dismissive letter: "While the idea sounds good, we are already in the midst of moving toward a Tap and Ride fare payment system that we hope to implement in 2015. In the meantime, Mr. Murphy should consider auditioning for our Music Under New York program." (Music Under New York is the organization that coordinates the placement of subway performers in the corridors and hallways of the subway system.)

So for now, Murphy's scheme remains just an idea. He thought it would be particularly memorable for people raised in the city, with Union Square sounding like one thing, 86th St. another. "You'd have an emotional, musical sense-memory for the places you grew up around," he said.

In terms of mass transit engaging the senses, it sounds a lot better than smellvertising. Surely some transit system out there could pick up this ball and run with it. Anyone?

Top image: Flickr user Susan NYC.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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