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

    Having established that the MTA’s Rules of Conduct are able to articulate many of the myriad institutional sonic phobias that manifest as cultural deterrents and allowances, contributing to a complexly co-authored soundscape below the streets of New York, it is relevant to explore an instance in which the MTA explicitly encourages public exhibition of sound not only from performers, but from everyday commuters as they conduct their routine business on the subway. Embedded in the the MTA’s acceptance of arts and public exhibition, however mired it may be in institutional favoritism as seen in its MUSIC program, there seems to be a prevailing commitment to the exercise of the free expression of the community, reflecting the cultural plurality of New York at large. Moving in this section from institutional acceptance of public exhibition, to institutional encouragement of sonic intersubjectivity will further bolster Schafer’s notion that soundscapes are collaborative compositions that are negotiated into being by societies, both contributing to and reflecting that society’s culture and values.

Early Sunday morning on the downtown platform of the 34th Street/Herald Square N/R station, I can hear the jungle. As Schafer has lamented, “modern man is losing even the names of the birds,” to the point where city dwellers often lump their songs together in a single category; “I heard a bird” (Schafer 1977, 34). My ear lacks the sensitivity to identify which bird shrieks, which whistles low, which hoots and warbles mournfully, or which brightly chirps. What I do know is that these sounds are out of place. They are not the familiar keynote sounds of New York City. Somewhere an ox is lowing, and there is music; synthetic marimba and chimes, flutes, percussive vibrations — somebody is playing music. I become immersed in the sounds, and I am momentarily transported from the concrete Manhattan subway station, an industrial and artificial space, to someplace else; somewhere green, damp, and wild. And just as soon as I begin to untether myself from the mundane reality of the MTA, a train thunders onto the opposite track with its familiar low rumble, rhythmic clack, and metallic squeal, and the public address begins its customary robotic announcements. I am shaken back to reality (4/27/2014 REACH 001).

This earwitness had unwittingly encountered an interactive sound installation called REACH: New York, installed in 1995 by sound artist Christopher Janney. Light sensors have been placed above the heads of subway passengers. When passers-by place their hands in front of the sensors, a beam of light from across the platform is interrupted, and a sound is triggered. Passing by, one can reach up and trigger a multitude of sounds at random and move on, or one can linger and play the subway station as an instrument. Janney states that the intent of REACH is “to enhance and connect subway riders with their urban environment in an unusual way” (Janney 2014). It is curious that the artist chose to use “environmental sound images” from rain forests, and Florida’s Everglades in order to connect passengers to New York’s urbanity (Janney 2014). My experience was that of being transported away from the city, contrary to the artist’s stated intent, but perhaps I am too hasty in dismissing the artist’s position.

Schafer offers the perspective that birdsong echoes in the activities of human beings, and that the man-made sounds which we inhabit define our spaces in the same way. “The territorial calls of birds are reproduced in automobile horn blowing, their alarm calls are reproduced in police sirens and their pleasure calls in the beach-side radio. In the territorial calls of birds we encounter the genesis of the idea of acoustic space...” (Schafer 1977, 33). The birdsongs described by Schafer define space by relaying direction, distance, instruction, intent, danger, and emotion, and the urban soundscape of New York is filled with sounds that fulfill the same functions. Janney’s REACH defines its acoustic space by employing an alternative auditory lexicon to that which usually defines urban acoustic environments. My first involuntary act upon hearing the birdcalls under 34th street was echolocation, and when I found the source of the sounds, I immediately began to engage with them, triggering them myself, reacting to sounds triggered by other passengers, and performing together.

“Since the beams of light are designed to shine across the tracks, riders can play REACH with other passengers,” says Janney of his work (Janney 2014). “Subway music!” exclaims one passenger from across the platform, notably appropriating these exotic sounds as urban artifacts (4/27/2014 REACH, 2:09). His exclamation adds an explicitly human layer to the electric jungle cacophony of 34th Street station, and in response, another participant audibly expresses his approval over my shoulder. The distance between participants, those on the uptown platform, and those on the downtown platform, is bridged by this cooperative performance, and in this moment the entire station is activated as an intersubjective space as described by Barthes (Barthes 1985, 246). Passengers are engaging each other, and the acoustic space of the entire station, rather than merely the immediate space around them. As we have heard, “subway music” is a common phenomenon, routinely performed by buskers across the city, but it rarely elicits the enthusiasm of these passengers. Divorced of the Rules of Conduct that govern typical subway performances, this installation is a rare example of explicit institutional encouragement for all passengers to generate sound cooperatively and with abandon. The result is the spontaneous formation of communities that open the acoustic space to intersubjective interactions between strangers, a breaching of the typical separation between uptown and downtown passengers, and an engagement of acoustic space that is explicitly urban.

The elation that a subway passenger might feel when playing Christopher Janney’s REACH at 34th Street station can be interpreted as relating to Schafer’s concept of “sacred noise,” which describes the way in which loud noises and modes of address “[evoke] fear and respect... and how they [seem] to relate to divine power” (Schafer 1977, 76). Schafer states:

The association of noise and power has never really been broken in the human imagination. It descends from God, to the priest, to the industrialist, and more recently to the broadcaster and the aviator. The important thing to realize is this: to have Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise; rather it is a matter of having the authority to make it without censure. (Schafer 1997, 76)

In the subway, sound has a powerfully institutionalized dimension. The loudest sound objects, the trains themselves, dominate acoustic space at the whim of the MTA. Public announcements hold sway over the ease and efficiency of one’s commute, such as in the instance of emergency announcements of schedule changes, which although not the loudest sounds in the subway are issued “without censure,” and are regarded by many with reverence (5/2/14 Atlantic Barclays 001). The Sacred Noise status of the public address is not only achieved by its official capacity, but by the mere fact that the content of such messages might determine whether or not one reaches work on time, makes it to the big interview or presentation, or reaches home before dinner. The guidelines that govern the sounds that one is allowed to make on a subway platform or train are designed and deployed in order to maintain and bolster the authority of the MTA’s Sacred Noises, whether or not they are consistently followed by patrons of the MTA. REACH is an institutional slackening of those sonic restrictions; a reflection and reification of a dominant cultural preference for the profusion of community expression over order and control, and an acknowledgement that in New York, public spaces are to be used as shared public forums.

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