Monday, June 09, 2008

Sound Solutions for Commuter Spaces

Manhattan's vast system of subway tunnels and platforms provides many great opportunities for sound, but not always or particularly in the area of information delivery.

But while the notorious reverb that is inherent in those cavernous, underground commuter spaces muddles official communications, it conversely provides us with often inspiring performance space acoustics (if one can otherwise ignore all the other distractions that define such an environment, i.e. platform shaking, 80-decibel trains thundering by us).

This circumstance strikes me as somewhat ironic, too, because in no other equivalent modern space have architects quite so flagrantly rejected any and all methods to tame the arguable problem of interior echoes.

Even concert halls known for reverberant spaces are outfitted with acoustic tiles.

Which is to say: Nothing man-made escapes his control, so why should a subway platform be any different?

Cathedrals and temples take another approach: Their inhabitants communicate whether by speech or music in terms that over the years all agree work with the space. The best church music, for instance, is composed with such reverberations in mind. The most inspiring sermons use a call and response that posit soloist with chorus, a model perhaps learned from the Greeks who employed it in their theatre.

Would call and response work for a transit alert? No, of course not. But one thing we can certainly take away from Medieval chant is the fact they were slow moving, allowing for complete comprehension of lyrical data before returning echoes collided with new incoming information.

Indeed, the many cathedral-like spaces within the subway network offer actively reverberant spaces for the many artists who do perform there, both officially and unofficially.

For those readers who are not New Yorkers, the Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) has since 1985 hosted an ongoing Artist series called MUSIC UNDER NEW YORK (MUNY). According to the MUNY website, more than 100 soloists and groups are participating in the 2008 program, "providing over 150 weekly performances at 25 locations throughout the transit system."

And it was via the MUNY series that I first stumbled on Daphne Hellman and her group Hellman's Angels, playing the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal. Daphne played jazz and blues on an eighty-five pound gilded classical harp. Not only was it some of the most amazing blues I've heard, it re-framed my perception of the harp, and Daphne and her band felt born of the space.

But does anyone know if the MTA simply gives performers space and time, or have the powers that be ever commissioned music inspired directly by transit? When and if they do, the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal would make a fantastic hall for the work's debut.

However, perfect performance spaces don't always make perfect communication spaces. Reverberations essentially render transit alert announcements unintelligible. The result is often frustrating for commuters.

In one sense then, the Manhattan Transit Authority does indeed already possess a Sonic Brand:

For some, the sound of the the MTA is conveyed differently by each artist sponsored by the MUNY project. It is not then any one song that conveys the MTA brand, but the mere fact of song (in what are otherwise caves), which does so.

But I think most strap hangers would say any message is more often than not rudely squelched every time the PA system delivers a burst of incomprehensible noise. And that in fact, it is the squelch itself that is closer to signifying the MTA brand with sound (that and the squeal of a braking train, the two often overlaying one another in something that resembles caterwauling unison).

What if we can get beyond that problem, though?

At that point, –if the MTA were to actually commission a Sonic Brand asset– the resulting sound would no doubt have to deliver a message of safety, timeliness and confidence or authority. Funnily enough, I actually think a variation of the squealing brakes would work, but it would have to be re-sculpted from ear drum piercing to something that conjures up, say, a shooting star or a comet.

However, Commuter Transit and Information Delivery go hand in hand. We live in an age of small networks. We are inspired not just in how to get from point A to point B, but how to do so efficiently, not to mention economically and ecologically.

Obviously at this juncture, it would be premature to commission an aural image campaign, because any such message would land on the city's collective commuter ears with a dull, inauthentic thud.

Who believes the subway travel is safe? Timely? Comfortable? Efficient?

On the other hand, trains do provide a more or less economical and ecological method of transport relative to individuals in cars or trucks. So, one might very well commission a campaign that ignores the common complaints and announces our client's strength's and positives:

Commuter transit by rail: It's cheap and it's green.

I think we all agree, though, it behooves the MTA to first find a way to address the aforementioned issues, the problem of noise inclusive.

We don't just want to get there on time, or on the cheap. We want our trains to be clean and quiet. And we want important announcements regarding travel conditions to arrive on our ears in full comprehensible clarity.

Anything short of that lacks modernity and feels ancient. Time moves forward. Trains move forward. Our expectations move forward.

So, addressing issues related to sound only:

In the near field, the MTA needs to find a way to quash reverberations –albeit only in designated places– so that commuters can always be certain they can receive clear communication regarding the status of their commute.

Far field, the next commission of trains ought to be designed so that they provide a quieter experience for both passengers en transit and for those waiting on the platforms, whose ears are on the other end of an approaching train.

If and when the MTA can accomplish these two things, then the subsequent marketing campaign heralding the acoustic accomplishment might do well to include a Tonal ID or some other scalable construction born from the study of both sound and semiotics that delivers this message, in order that the client might reinforce –and commuters might acknowledge– the old model has faded out, and a new one has taken its place, one that is efficient, economical and ecological and evolved.

The Tonal ID would also prove a valuable asset for any broadcast advertising strategy, and possibly be conceived so as to be integral experiential asset to the information delivery itself.

One beautifully conceived sound to replace many random, often annoying sounds.

In the meantime, the MTA might consider delivering transit update announcements using communication means that are known to work in reverberant spaces.

Maybe it's time to bring on the yodelers!


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article. Am now working up a proposal for noise reduction at NYU based upon using acoustic tiles etc. at stations. Any ideas for determining their specific reduction paramaters? contact

Terry O'Gara said...

Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately, my area of expertise is brands and bands. Practical applications of acoustical theory are better left to the experts, like yourself. But if you do come up with a solution and manage to sell it to the MTA, I can certainly assist you in the production of creative audio solutions for the environment/s and any related marketing assets.