James Murphy Wants to Make the Subway a More Musical Place

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 12 2013 4:19 PM

James Murphy Wants to Make the Subway a More Musical Place

Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy
Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy.

Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images For Canon

In a recent interview with Sound Opinions, songwriter and producer James Murphy discussed his many post-LCD Soundsystem projects, including producing Arcade Fire’s latest album Reflektor, and composing music for Mike Nichols’ latest Broadway production, of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. But in an extra just posted online today, Murphy described another, even more ambitious endeavor: He’d like to transform the sound of the NYC subway.

“I’ve been fighting for now 14 years to try and do this, to make all the subway turnstiles make music,” he said, explaining that he wants “to make every station in New York have a different set of dominant keys.” That way, “when people grow up, later on in life they might hear a piece of music and [think], ‘Oh, that’s like Union Square.’ ” For those who know the basics of how chords and arpeggios work, he explained how you could this without it sounding like total sonic chaos:

So when you go through the turnstiles there would be a little thing that would make a beep of a certain note. And it would have a random note generator that would be based on a percentage, so the root note would have a higher percentage of going off, and the third, and the fifth. And during rush hour in the bigger stations hopefully it would make a really beautiful piece of music.
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In other words, it would work a bit like a monome—every note would be pre-programmed to be harmonious, so you couldn’t walk through the wrong turnstile with two of your friends and complete, say, “the chord of evil.”

It turns out that this isn’t the first time Murphy has mentioned the plan, but he says his main problem is that he doesn’t know who to get in touch with—“the Transit Authority, or is it the city?” A little digging finds that the MTA has caught wind of the idea and been a bit dismissive before. (Perhaps they’d rather have him focus on new songs from LCD Soundsystem.)

But, of course, New York City has a new mayor, and Bill de Blasio has yet to weigh in. I couldn’t tell you how affordable this project would be, but those concerns aside, there’s no way the turnstiles could sound any worse than they do now.

Update, Feb. 24, 2014: You can now watch video of what this new system would sound like, below, via the Wall Street Journal. Murphy has also started a website and a petition, which you can sign here.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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