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

    Lest this analysis verge on idealistic, let us return to Goodman’s notion of sonic warfare. Merely because the MTA has demonstrated a willingness to share measures of acoustic power with the public, it does not hold that institutional powers do not freely exercise mechanisms of sonic control over commuters, from everyday sonic cues and public addresses, to the implementation institutional regulations. Furthermore, those mechanisms are often met by the public with disobedience and friction, including the exercise of illicit sonic exhibitions that are diversely supported or unappreciated by the ridership at large and the authority that governs them. Furthermore, the notion that an aggressive police confrontation with a subway busker (as documented on YouTube) could be an isolated incident would be absurd and naive (Branch 2014). Individual expression is permitted within the MTA to an institutional standard that is inconsistent, difficult to interpret, and biased in favor of officially recognized exhibitions. The MTA is no utopia.

It is important here to recall once more that Goodman defines sonic warfare as existing on a continuum of repellant and seductive vibrational forces, and it is on the seductive end of this continuum that his warfare metaphor sometimes feels misapplied (Goodman 2010, 10-11). Music’s affective properties are situated by Goodman at this seductive end, with their characteristic “heightening of collective sensation, an attractive, almost magnetic, or vortical force” (Goodman 2010, 11). We recognize music’s ability to move people in the affective power of various transit systems’ uses of music-like sonic anaphones. In this reading of the soundscape, the MTA’s MUSIC participants might be considered seductive agents of the Transit Authority, constructing the illusion of an egalitarian sonic regime through regulated public performances that effectively undermine the ability of performers at large to utilize the public acoustic arenas of the MTA. The use of the word warfare brings with it the temptation to understand soundscapes in the context of oppositional binaries, such as controller vs. controlled, or in this instance transit authority vs. commuters, but the situation is far more nuanced.

Through Schafer we can develop the notion that the MTA’s soundscape is not merely a site of acoustic conflict and negotiations of control, but an elaborate composition that has been co-authored by institutional infrastructure, regulations that create deterrents and affordances with regard to sonic exhibition and behavior, individual negotiations of those deterrents and affordances, and the distinct cultural values that are inscribed in the creation and myriad uses of public acoustic spaces (Schafer 1997, 237). We have heard that the MTA’s soundscape has been composed with a distinctly tuned cultural ear, one that stands in stark contrast to the tightly held controls and sonic phobias of the WMATA. While one system prizes order, and the other allows room for expression, Schafer would ultimately find fault in both.

Subway systems are necessarily burdened with the suprabiological signature sounds of post-industrial modernity, such as buzzing and whirring “modern ventilation, lighting, elevators and heating-systems,” as well as requisite heavy machinery; the tons of steel that are noisily and endlessly propelled at high speeds along weary miles of aging tracks (Schafer 1997, 223). The WMATA responds to these challenges with a conservative ear, dampening and minimizing sound wherever possible, whether in the design of infrastructure or the regulations governing passenger behavior. This is a tactic that Schafer would no doubt consider unfortunately reductive and sterile, and it is perhaps only possible because the WMATA is a smaller transit system serving a smaller population. Despite its many quiet moments, the MTA meets an excess of noise with ever more noise, acquiescing to and ultimately embracing cultural forces stronger than itself in the brimming population of New York and its demonstrated creative exuberance.

Perhaps Schafer would embrace that the MTA is home to a soundscape in which a culture is attempting to hear, rather than plugging its ears on a societal level (the widespread use of headphones notwithstanding). Doubtlessly, there are endless sonic challenges inherent to the proposition of transforming the MTA’s cacophony into a finely tuned composition. The tone-deaf beep of the its turnstiles comes immediately to mind. Whereas Washington D.C. opted to silence its equivalent devices, New Yorkers may seek an alternative solution to this apparent afterthought in acoustic design. Musician James Murphy, producer and frontman of the the popular New York indie-pop act, LCD Soundsystem, is a sonic utopian in a Schaferian vein, and he hopes that the MTA will take advantage of impending upgrades to subway infrastructure by considering the sonic composition of its stations. Praising the MTA as “one of the most egalitarian, kind and high-functioning miracles in a city known around the world for it's nearly unforgiving toughness,” Murphy simultaneously bemoans the turnstiles’ “dissonant rubbing-styrofoam-on-glass squeak in stations all around New York City,” and has introduced a proposal to replace it when the MTA upgrades to a tap-and-go system like that of the WMATA:

What i propose to do is to create a series of 3 to 5 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... As you tap your new tap and ride card, a pleasant bell tone will sound, in one of a set of possible notes, all related to that station's note sequence. The effect would be that at the busiest times, like rush hour, what was once cacophony would now be music. (Murphy 2015)

Schafer’s idealistic notion of a society learning sonological competence and recomposing its soundscapes as a reflection of a considered cultural ear is tempered by a pragmatic expression of the realities of incremental progress. He writes: “there are times for practical repair work and there are times for huge imaginative excursions into utopia. It does not matter whether such dreams are directly realizable; they give elevation to the spirit, nobility to the mind” (Schafer 1997, 244). Murphy’s simple but whimsical suggestion seems to address both practical repair work and a measured excursion into utopia.

Whether riding the subway with ears perked to listen to its composition, or “stuffed with bacon” (or more likely earbuds), the MTA is home to a soundscape which engages the rider in a collaborative, if sometimes adversarial co-authorship (Schafer 1997, 222). The affective powers of sound are employed day after day by diverse parties who vie for sonic dominance, control, harmony, and expression all at once in varying measures. This soundscape is a system with dynamic faults and surprising affordances reflective of the culture that willed it into existence. Recalling Barthes, hearing is a passive human function, but listening must necessarily be deliberate (Barthes 1985, 258). In the chaos of cacophony one’s impulse may be merely to hear, or perhaps to attempt not to hear at all, but it is the hope of this earwitness that on your next journey you may choose to listen.

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