I’ve been making field recordings in subway cars in a number of cities—New York being patient zero—intermittently over the last few years. I’ve become obsessed with how things sound or behave in aggregate.
Every city is about muchness, about density. Public transport captures the complex vitality of the city as if in amber. The sound of the crowd held tight by a subway car is a snapshot of muchness; it also encapsulates the unique qualities of a city’s particular muchness. What do 120 people talking over each other in the New York subway sound like, and what does that sound tell you about New York? How does it compare to the sound of another city? This linguistic texture is also a social texture—it gives us a phonology of the city but also, somehow, tells us about how its residents live.
The crowd in Shanghai is very loud and produces lots of harsh, sharp attacks. Its sonic texture is punctuated by short peaks in volume and intensity. It’s frenetic and impatient. The robotic announcer is overcome by the Mandarin mass. The language itself sounds virtuosic.
Shanghai Metro, 6/13/14
Oslo, on the other hand, has a slippery quality. There is reservation in these voices. Norwegian is like German with its rough edges smoothed out.
Oslo Tram, 7/30/15, 9:15 p.m.
London’s Underground, at rush hour no less, is pretty quiet. Men in suits reading the paper leave us with the elegant whirr of wheels on muffled rail.
London Underground, 8/10/15
There’s more inner diversity in the sound of the New York crowd, finally, than anywhere else. You encounter mouths pointed in every possible direction, speaking 800 languages.
The momentum of the inner textures within the aggregate sound of the New York subway is astounding. The sound crackles and pops. Your ear catches little limbs of speech, severed from streams of conversation, from meaningful contexts. Little crystals of group-speech link together to form larger kaleidoscopic aggregates. There is always a lower stratum of dim imperceptible blabber, with a more distant phenomenological weight. Underneath or around these successively less distinct layers of speech you hear wheels grinding directly below you and one or two or four platforms over. The sharp punctuation of the car jostling over track links periodically interrupts.
Amid this coruscating field of sound, your focus shifts between hot-points around the sonic space, darting from one corner of the subway car to the next. Your physical position in the car privileges some sounds over others, determining the particular texture profile you experience—the subway car offers not one texture but infinitely many, your subjectness making a unified gestalt impossible. And if you are speaking to someone else, if you take a step into the sonic fold, but keep listening, a funny thing happens to your own speech—your subjectness is superimposed on the texture of others’ subjectnessess, embroidered with others’ speech, with other centralities.
New York Subway, 1 Train, 10/10/15, 10 p.m.
Subjectness abounds: the collective is composed of the individual, many times over. I’m fascinated by moments in which the latter emerges from the former. The anonymous crowd needs a hero. A thread is wrenched out of the social fabric and we zoom in for closer inspection. Cities offer heroes by turns comedic
Oslo Public Bus, 7/30/15
New York Subway, 10/16/15
A composer from New York City, Gideon Broshy has slowly learned the art of peeking one’s iPhone recorder out of one’s pocket unnoticed. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.