Please wear headphones
This audio-ethnography employs field-recordings that are best
engaged in the immersive context of isolated personal listening.

    As the busiest station in the MTA system, it is no surprise that Times Square/ 42nd Street is home to a diverse and cluttered sonic experience, especially during evening rush hours. The station serves 11 service lines, and connects to the Port Authority bus terminal via pedestrian tunnel, uniting travelers from all corners of New York City and points beyond in a vast labyrinth of constantly changing sonic stimuli. In order to accommodate many service lines, train platforms are stacked upon one another creating a crisscrossing vault in which machine sounds and station announcements echo from multiple directions, often blending into an undifferentiated cacophony along with the commuters, performers, police, and staff who populate the space. As one explores this environment, sounds can be distinguished one by one from the sonic rabble, able to assert themselves only as the earwitness enters and exits distinct acoustic arenas; those arrangements of material spaces and sonic actors in which some sounds achieve dominance over others, as previously described by Blesser and Salter (Blesser 2007, 26).

A group of several Hare Krishna performers defines their acoustic arena with a chorus of voices, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of swelling harmonium, slow rhythmic hand drums, and piercing chimes (1/21/2015 Times Square PM 004, 02:20). The rumble of a nearby train is not enough to totally obscure the performers within this arena. They are only silenced by lack of proximity as the earwitness moves away from the performance, and other sonic actors claim the space. The concrete, steel, and tile of the Times Square MTA station create a highly resonant sonic environment, and the echoes of the Hare Krishas’ performance linger for a time as footfalls and voices define the emerging arena. Taken as an example of the broad practice of public performance in the subway system, these Hare Krishnas demonstrate the ability of sonic actors to dominate finite regions of acoustic space, as well as the spacial limitations of their sonic dominance. This comparatively simple example is helpful in attempting to engage audio samples collected from within overlapping acoustic arenas, in which performers share proximity, and space is an acoustic resource that is contested by diverse parties.

The Harre Krishnas’ performance competes with the mechanical racket of nearby trains, as well as the clatter of commuter activity, but it is common in the subway for all of these sonic actors to share acoustic quarters with numerous simultaneous performances, as well as myriad institutional signal sounds and public addresses. Putting it simply, acoustic arenas within the MTA are frequently far less tidy than those captured on the recording of the Hare Krishnas. Another recording from Times Square/42nd Street Station illustrates this point.

In an open concourse, trains are heard coming and going at regular intervals, heralded by familiar mechanical clatter and automated station announcements. Passengers move about, talking amongst themselves, sometimes yelling over the machine racket, precious few of them taking notice of the solitary performance of the elderly accordion player sitting against a steel pillar (1/21/2015 Times Square PM 005). His accordion struggles to gain sonic traction against not only the powerful mechanical report of the subway trains, but also a nearby vocal duo whose operatic harmonies periodically elicit applause from passers-by, buttressed by electronically amplified keyboard accompaniment. The earwitness can choose between these two performances merely by walking from one to the other, but neither is ever out of earshot within this space. In the region between the singers and the accordion player there is a chaotic no-man’s land; the jarring overlap of acoustic arenas in which neither performance truly dominates. A woman yells in Spanish, holding up a portrait of Jesus Christ; religious proselytizing is a pervasive genre of performance within New York’s subway. In this space, musical performances, hydraulic hissing, the rumbling of trains, electronic public address, percussive pedestrian foot traffic, interpersonal conversation, and repetitious religious oratory collide, forcing the earwitness to jog between the competing stimuli, none of which truly succeed in dominating the space. This is the experience of cacophony. On this subject, Schafer proclaims:

...The soundscape is no accidental byproduct of society; rather it is a deliberate construction by its creators, a composition which may be as much distinguished for its beauty as for its ugliness. When a society fumbles with sound, when it does not comprehend the principles of decorum and balance in soundmaking, when it does not understand that there is a time to produce and a time to shut up, the soundscape slips from hi-fi to lo-fi condition and ultimately consumes itself in cacophony. (Schafer 1997, 237)

Certainly if ever there was a place in which the principals of decorum and balance in soundmaking have been neglected, it would be the Times Square/42nd Street subway station. However, Schafer is keen to describe such soundscapes as compositions and not mere happenstance, and therein lies Schafer’s prescription for chaotic soundscapes. Schafer can be described as a sonic utopian. By his assessment, careful attention to sound should be a value held on a societal level, but in contemporary societies the intense prioritization of the sense of sight has created cultures that no longer remember how to hear (Schafer 1997, 222). He accuses the modern architect of “designing for the deaf,” scolding: “his ears are stuffed with bacon. Until they can be unplugged with ear cleaning exercises, modern architecture can be expected to continue its same rotten course” in which the acoustic properties of spaces and structures are typically afterthoughts, resulting in spaces wherein sound proliferates in unpleasant ways (Schafer 1997, 222). Ear cleaning exercises are techniques designed by Schafer that are intended to reeducate one’s sense of hearing in order to re-approach the soundscape with “sonological competence” (Schafer 1997, 181). In a Schaferian sense, the Times Square cacophony is a poor composition made by incompetent authors, and the sonic chaos is a symptom of a society that undervalues hearing. To Schafer these incompetent authors are not merely a society’s physical architects and engineers who neglectfully consider sound in their designs, or its performers and other sonic emitters who eschew the decorum of the time to produce and the time to shut up. He also locates powerful influence over the soundscape in civic and institutional regulations such as noise ordinances and rules pertaining to sound and the behavior of those who emit it.

  Subterranean Soundcapes © 2015 Jesse Mitchell Lindsey, all rights reserved.
MTA Train Emblems, Image courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority.