The Music of the Lines: Urban Travel as Unfolding Soundscape

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

Alexander Chen, "Conductor" still

New York City MTA Subway Map

Using a spare version of Massimo Vignelli’s diagrammatic mapping of the New York Subway system, Alexander Chen generates a real-time atonal (mostly) sound composition which can be followed both visually and aurally.  Code pursuing (with HTML, Java, and Flash) the current travels of the NYC subway trains, the intersections and crossings of different train lines creates a “plucking” of a string tone assigned to that line.  From the site you can watch (all in real-time) the departures, arrivals and travels of the trains and the resultant minimal sound/temporal travelscape formed in the intersections of the subway mappings.   The Real-time action and soundscape can be seen at , or you can see a past section of “Conductor” in the video:

“Conductor”  (past section of, Alexander Chen, 2011

Subway Details : The piece follows some rules. Every minute, it checks for new trains launched from their end stations. The train then moves towards the end of the line, with its speed set by the schedule’s estimated trip duration. Some decisions were made for musical, aesthetic, and technical reasons, such as fading out routes over time, the gradual time acceleration, and limiting the number of concurrent trains. Also, I used the weekday schedule. Some of these limitations result in subtle variations, as different trains are chosen during each 24-hour loop.

The system has changed since 1972, and some lines no longer exist. For example, the 8 train, or the Third Ave El, was shut down in 1973. The former K train was merged into other routes. I decided to run these ghost trains between 12am-2am

And for the sound generation rules, Chen notes :Length determines pitch, with longer strings playing lower notes. When a string is in the middle of being drawn by a subway car, its pitch is continually shifting. The sounds are cello pizzicato from the wonderful, a set recorded by corsica_s. A complete chromatic scale was too dissonant. Ultimately I settled on a simple major C scale but with the lowest note as a raised third E, which keeps it from ever feeling fully resolved


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