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

    This is a project devoted to listening. The subway and its sounds are not merely mundane realities that New Yorkers face, but crucial aspects of how New York City is used by its inhabitants to conduct their lives. In the subway, extreme repetition might cause certain sounds to recede into the background of our attention, as we respond to them seemingly automatically. Nonetheless, our active responses suggest that the subway compels us to listen, not merely to hear, but often times so little consideration is given by commuters to the sounds themselves. This study will linger on these sounds in an attempt to understand their loaded contexts and ramifications, rather than letting them pass us by as we move swiftly along toward some destination.

The use of audio recordings in this project begs both the author and the reader to act as earwitnesses, as described by R. Murray Schafer, who originated the concept of the soundscape. Just as we are eyewitnesses to all we see before us in a landscape, we become earwitnesses to our soundscape; the dynamic and shifting acoustic environment of the world around us (Schafer 1997, 8). “A writer is trustworthy only when writing about sounds directly experienced and intimately known,” claims Schafer, who bemoans that one writes about sound on “silent pages... forced to use some types of visual projection as well as musical notation” in order to engage sounds in a written venue (Schafer 1997, 8). This project forgoes such attempts at visual representations of sound, and instead engages audio recordings that attempt to lend the work the type of authenticity that Schafer seeks in a trustworthy writer. Schafer points out that audio recordings will likely fall short of capturing the nuanced complexity experienced by the human ear in a given soundscape, and acknowledging that limitation is necessary. While high quality stereo equipment has been used to capture the recordings in this study, they do not represent the natural experience of the human ear in the MTA subway system. However, this fact should not greatly diminish the potency of these recordings as texts to be examined. Technology mediates sound in this work, but so too do photographs and film mediate the visual experience, and they have long been accepted as grounding texts in visual cultural studies. Nonetheless, attention will be paid, when necessary, to the limitations of recording technologies insofar as they pertain to this discussion.

Roland Barthes makes the crucial distinction between hearing and listening; the former of which is a passive biological function, and the latter of which is a deliberate act: “to listen is to want to hear” (Barthes 1985, 258). He describes three levels at which listening occurs, all of which are employed by the patrons who interact with New York’s MTA. The first level is alert listening in which the ear searches for particular indices; the way in which “the wolf listens for a (possible) noise of its prey, the hare for a (possible) noise of its hunter, the child and the lover for the approaching footsteps which might be the mother’s or the beloved’s” (Barthes 1985, 245). For example, this type of listening takes place in the subway when the oncoming train first becomes audible, especially in the many instances in which trains are heard before they are ever seen, such as this approaching N train, heard as the earwitness waited for a Brooklyn bound R (3/9/15 R Train 002). Enacting alert listening, the subway passenger might react by approaching the edge of the platform before the train is in the station, jockeying for position with the other passengers, and harboring hope that the approaching sound is that of their train, rather than some other.

The second level of listening described by Barthes is that of deciphering in which one is listening for signals with specific meanings, or as Barthes says “[listening] the way [we] read” (Barthes 1985, 245). Michel Chion calls it semantic listening, “which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message... A phoneme is listened to not strictly for its acoustical properties but as part of an entire system of oppositions and differences” (Chion 2012, 50). Meaning is therefore not inherent to the sounds themselves, but inscribed upon sounds by the culture in which they are used. In the subway there exists an elaborate acoustic language, providing passengers with crucial information that pertains to their commutes. For example, upon swiping one's MetroCard (the prepaid card which allows admittance to the MTA), the card reader indicates that the passenger’s fare has been accepted by emitting a telltale beeping sound, which is an auditory cue; a signal that when deciphered conveys to the passenger that their fare is correct and they are able to proceed through the turnstile (1/22/2015 Flushing Main Am 002, 6:00).

Barthes’ third level of listening can be described as “intersubjective” listening, in which the listener is not seeking mere indices or signals, as in alert or deciphering, but seeks “who speaks, who emits,” creating a “space where ‘I am listening’ also means ‘listen to me’ ” (Barthes 1985, 246). Barthes’ most helpful example of this type of listening is the telephone, which he calls “the archetypal instrument of modern listening,” because it “collects the two partners into an ideal (and under certain circumstances, an intolerable) intersubjectivity, because this instrument has abolished all senses except that of hearing...” (Barthes 1985, 251). Despite the clarifying example of the telephone, intersubjective listening is routinely accomplished with no tools at all. Subway stations and trains across New York City are sites of social interaction. MTA passengers often travel in groups or pairs, conducting conversations that define their space intersubjectively, each participant reciprocally ascertaining the subjectivity of their companions, such as in this recording from the station at Times Square (1/21/2015 Times Square PM 001). This intersubjective listening is the mechanism by which audio-culture is enacted through conversation, conflict, and performance, and will be a key site of inquiry in this study.

The ebb and flow of crowds, and the constant arrival and departure of trains, with all of their corresponding announcements and auditory signals, create a chaotic environment that can shift in a moment from cacophony to relative tranquility. Even in its quietest moments, the subway is not silent; ventilation systems and other machine apparatuses provide an ever present “flat line” hum that Schafer describes as “suprabiological” because steady, unpunctuated sounds are rarely found in nature (Schafer 1977, 79). Both Schafer and Roland Barthes are concerned with the inhuman or unnatural aspects of sound in post-industrial modernity. Schafer states that inhuman environments are created “when, as today, environmental sound reaches such proportions that human vocal sounds are masked or overwhelmed...” and “when sounds are forced on the ear which may endanger it physically or debilitate it psychologically...” (Schafer 1977, 207). Schafer’s concern gestures toward noise pollution, which Barthes describes as occurring when “the auditive background invades the whole of phonic space (if the ambient noise is too loud)...” in which situation “selection or intelligence of space is no longer possible...” (Barthes 1985, 247). Both of these scholars gesture towards a human incompatibility with modernity that often manifests in the sounds with which human beings are compelled to routinely interact. Bolstering these concerns, a 2009 study by Richard Neitzel of the University of Michigan School of Public Health concluded of the MTA subway system that “exposures of a few hours to as little as two minutes a day... would be expected to cause hearing loss for some people given chronic exposure” (Neitzel et al. 2009, 1398).

Schafer discusses the importance of keynote sounds that define an acoustic space. He writes that “even though keynote sounds may not always be heard consciously, the fact that they are ubiquitously there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behavior and moods. The keynote sounds of a given place are important because they help to outline the character of men living among them” (Schafer 1997, 9). Schafer’s concern over suprabiological post-industrial soundscapes comes to the fore in this moment. The keynote sounds of the subway, many of which will be explored in the pages to come, inevitably inscribe themselves onto the culture created therein, and onto the culture of New York City by extension. It is appropriate then to inquire into the nature of the affect of sound.

Michel Chion writes of sound from the perspective of its use in film. He introduces us to the concept of reduced listening, which he has adapted from Pierre Schaffer. Reduced listening is interested in the traits of a sound itself, independent of source or meaning, and assumes that the very nature of a sound carries an inherent affective quality in and of itself. “The emotional, physical, and aesthetic value of a sound is linked not only to the causal explanation we attribute to [its source] but also to its own qualities of timbre and texture, to its own personal vibration” (Chion 2012, 51). Chion places in sound a unique ability to move people, and to alter perception. Observing that averting ones ears is not as simple a matter as averting one’s eyes, Chion asserts that in the cinema the gaseous ubiquity of sound can be used to affect the audience on a physical and emotional level.

The concept that sound might be used to evoke specific affective responses from individuals or groups is not unique to cinema. Jacques Attali gestures to the “essentially political” nature of sound at large, claiming that “its appropriation and control is a reflection of power” (Attali 2012, 31). Steve Goodman describes sonic warfare as the manipulation of vibrational force, both audible sound and those vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear (infrasonic and ultrasonic vibrations), “to modulate the physical, affective, and libidinal dynamics of populations, bodies, [and] of crowds” (Goodman 2010, 10). In other words, Goodman is describing the use of sound to control people. Goodman’s analysis goes beyond the semiotic level at which we can easily decipher the MTA’s station announcements, beeping signals, and chimes. Like Chion, he is interested in stripping away the meanings of sounds and examining the affective level at which they move people: “As opposed to sound as text, the dimension here is that of sound as force. Sonic warfare then, is the use of force both seductive and violent, abstract and physical... (author’s emphasis)” (Goodman 2010, 10). For example, the piercingly shrill alarm that sounds when a passenger opens an emergency exit door in an MTA station uses painfully high frequencies to affect an urgent response from a crowd, and articulates a repellant, rather than seductive deployment of affective sonic force (4/25/14 Prospect Avenue). The metaphor of warfare in Goodman’s work is sometimes sensational (perhaps sonic control is not seductive enough for a book jacket), but his analysis is useful in approaching questions of power and the politics of sound. It will be crucial to establish that in the sonic arena of the MTA, both the institution and the population represent sonic actors with the ability to enact power through sound.

Liz Giuffre and Luke Sharp offer an instructive study of one keynote sound of Montreal’s Société de transport de Montréal (STM) subway system. They examine the Dou Dou Dou, a multi-tonal chime that signals the train doors are about to close, and the train is getting underway. The signal is intended to “prevent transit users from getting stuck between doors” and to “prevent them from running or shoving other passengers to board the metro” (STM qtd in Guiffre 2014, 45). As Guiffre and Sharp put it, “The STM aims to control how commuters interact with each other on the platform and while boarding the train” (Guiffre 2014, 45). One of the crucial tactics of sonic warfare, according to Goodman, is repetition, through which behaviors become associated with sounds in a nearly Pavlovian sense (Goodman 2010, 69).

Usefully, Guiffre and Sharp evoke Michel Foucault in their discussion of power in the subway. They seek to identify his regimes of power enacted through the Dou Dou Dou. “Within his formulation is a process where ‘regimes of power’ are created, resulting in relationships where individuals do not have power, but rather they participate in it” (Guiffre 2014, 45). According Guiffre and Sharp, power is a transaction that takes place between the STM, and the commuters who use it. They demonstrate that the power exerted on commuters through the Dou Dou Dou was returned from the commuters to the STM through a successful grass roots internet campaign to have the sound changed. While this is a notable transaction of power, their analysis misses the opportunity to reveal Montréal commuters as sonic actors who enact their power through the manipulation of sound, just as the STM does. A simple example of this in the MTA is the aforementioned emergency exit alarm. Intended as mechanism for sonic control, commuters diluted the alarm’s affective power by repeatedly using emergency exits and sounding the alarm during non- emergencies. Since the spring of 2014 when that recording was made, the MTA has disconnected that particular alarm and many others, reflecting a negotiation of power that has taken place between the institution and commuters. One of the major goals of this project is to take the opportunity that Guiffre and Sharp missed, and to illustrate ways in which power is transacted through sound by both the MTA and the people who populate the transit system on a daily basis.

Often sound is thought of in terms of an emitter and a receiver. A voice speaks, and then an ear hears. Frequently the sound will be mediated by a device, such as a loudspeaker, or a telephone which inevitably transforms the signal, changing the characteristics of a sound. As will be subsequently demonstrated, the technological medium through which a sound signal is processed has an important, and sometimes political influence upon the character and audibility of a given sound. What is often neglected is the medium through which all sound must be processed regardless of technological interventions: space. Composer John Cage writes of entering an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a space engineered to neutralize echoes in which any sound emitted falls immediately away. In his search for silence, Cage entered the chamber and heard two sounds: “When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds” (Cage 2011, 8). The size, shape, material construction, and arrangement of a space all conspire to create what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter call an acoustic arena, in which some sounds are dominant and others are submissive (Blesser 2007, 26). An acoustic arena is also defined by the sounds audible therein. In a chamber devoid of reflected sounds, our very circulation and nervous systems enter our acoustic arenas. While the acoustic arena of a quiet subway station might include echoes of footsteps and voices at the opposite end of the platform and a persistent ventilator hum, the sudden rumble and screech of a train reduces the acoustic arena to shouts mere inches from ones ear (3/9/15 Jay Street/Metrotech PM 010). The MTA’s engineering, architecture, and building materials play a vital role in defining the acoustic space.

Blesser and Salter point to the social component of shifting acoustic arenas, and the blurred distinctions between public and private spaces. “When the windows of a private house are open during a summer afternoon, the acoustic arena of activities in the public street extends well into the private spaces of the house, and to a lesser extent, vice versa. Yet ownership and social rights associated with both the house and the street remain independent of the state of the windows” (Blesser 2007, 26). Jean-Paul Thibaud views headphones as an attempt to alienate oneself sonically from public spaces by publicly conducting private listening. In practice they really function as attenuators that suppress some sounds and enhance others. “The [walkman] listener uses it not only to protect himself from the sonic aggressions of the city but also to filter and enhance the events that give the place its meaning... Thus, this selective listening enables a hierarchization of everyday sounds and a decomposition of the urban soundscape” (Thibaud 2003, 331) Headphones, portable gaming devices, and smartphones have become ubiquitous in the shared acoustic arenas of the MTA, and their use often comes into conflict with the MTA’s Rules of Conduct (MTA [6] 2014).

Physical environmental construction, machine infrastructure, public address systems, automated audio signals, human interaction, performance, and conflict all conspire to create a labyrinth of acoustic arenas through which New York’s vast commuter cohort must navigate day in and day out. The MTA estimates that an average of nearly five and a half million passengers boarded its subway trains every weekday in 2013 (MTA [4] 2014). These are the people whose everyday experience is under scrutiny when conducting inquiry into sound infrastructure, audio culture, and the politics of power and control that result from their interaction. This paper will leverage collected audio-recordings not only to engage theorists such as the aforementioned scholars, but to apply critical pressure to the practices and infrastructure of the MTA and those who use it. Schafer posits that a culture is fundamentally inscribed with the keynote sounds of its soundscapes. The sounds collected here will illuminate a crucial audio culture, and provide an opportunity to engage it on qualitative and critical terms.

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