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

“Here we go. Show time, show time. What time is it?” he asks his companion, only moments after the telltale two-tone chime signals the closing doors of the Brooklyn bound N train (4/17/2014 N Train 022). “Show time!” is his partner’s reply, and with that the break-dancers, often known as b-boys, begin their earnest attempt to transform commuters into their captive audience. A few moments later they proceed to dominate the acoustic space of the train car, not only with instrumental hip-hop from their portable amplifier, but also with enthusiastic vocal commendations of each other’s dancing ability; “Here we go! Watch him! Oh!” The performance is brief, and is punctuated by a plea for donations. “That was our show, clap it up!” A few stray passengers indulge them. “Show your love, show your support. Any donations are highly appreciated.”

Young men shouting “Show time!” have an iconic presence aboard the trains of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway system. Performances such as this one are common enough that this particular recording was made on the first excursion of the first day of fieldwork for this critical cultural analysis of the MTA soundscape. Although routine, this performance was completely illicit, violating a number of regulations within the MTA’s Transit Adjudication Bureau: Rules of Conduct & Fines (henceforth Rules of Conduct) (MTA [6] 2015). Public performances are not categorically forbidden by the MTA, but the guidelines that govern them draw several firm lines, as well as many ambiguous ones. The Rules of Conduct attempt to provide a framework to maintain order in a crowded, aging, and noisy subway system, and are but one facet of the MTA’s institutional influence over the character of its unique soundscape. Other facets include audio infrastructure aboard trains and in stations such as the myriad pre-programmed and live public addresses, mechanical chimes and alarms, and the physical spacial arrangement of vehicles and facilities. Many of these features of the MTA are intended to orient and direct passengers as they navigate the transit system. Also of immense institutional influence in the soundscape is the MTA’s machine infrastructure: its rumbling trains, wheezing ventilators, and buzzing, humming, clanging sonic actors of often uncertain identity. To the hearing enabled among the millions of weekly MTA riders, most of these are familiar touchstones of their daily routines. As evidenced by the performers aboard the Brooklyn bound N Train, the MTA is far from the sole influence upon the character of the subway’s soundscape.

Every commuter, performer, MTA staff member, and NYPD officer inhabiting the subway represents one of countless distinct sonic actors, possessing of their own voices, bodies, intents, and a growing array of portable auditory devices at their disposal. Human beings are talking, screaming, laughing, stomping, clapping, singing, noisy, musical creatures. The primary site of inquiry in this investigation is the encounter between a diverse and sonically active human mass, and the MTA’s institutional infrastructure, including its authority as articulated through its Rules of Conduct and their practical application. This audio ethnography engages original field-recordings conducted in MTA stations and aboard trains. These recordings are cultural texts and constitute an earwitness account of the MTA soundscape as it exists in a moment in time. They have been analyzed within the theoretical territories of numerous scholars of influence within the field of Sound Studies, most notably R. Murray Schafer, the father of soundscape studies, and Steve Goodman whose work on sonic warfare is concerned with the deployment of sound as a means of controlling individuals and crowds of people.

It has been tempting to interpret this soundscape as the site of an oppositional binary, in which attempts at sonic control by the MTA are buttressed by the tenacious will of an untamable human mass. Indeed the MTA employs numerous sonic techniques that attempt to order and direct commuter movement and behaviors, and commuters are subject to a litany of regulations that exert institutional power over various sonic activities. However seductive Goodman’s formulation of sonic warfare may be, the us vs. them confrontation implicit in metaphors of war falls short of the complex system of institutional affordances and cultural forces that shape the vibrant, albeit chaotic soundscape of New York’s MTA subway system. While suspicion of institutional control is appropriate and of crucial interest to this analysis, to now invoke Schafer, what follows will reveal the MTA soundscape as a composition by numerous authors. Indeed this co-authored soundscape is the result of an ongoing negotiation between institutional authority and public will, but it is a negotiation composed of both conflict and cooperation between parties with multitudes of unique intentions, in which cultural values and phobias play a role equally compelling as that played by institutional power.

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