Musician James Murphy thinks New York’s “underground music” scene leaves a lot to be desired. He wants to change the underlying sound: the cacophony produced by the subway turnstiles.
“They make this unpleasant beep and are all slightly out of tune from one another,” said Mr. Murphy, 44 years old, over breakfast recently in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood here.
For the past 15 years, Mr. Murphy has been crafting what he says is a low-cost musical solution: He has worked out a unique set of notes for every station, one of which would sound each time a passenger swipes his or her MetroCard to catch a train. The busier a station becomes, the richer the harmonies would be. The same notes would also play in a set sequence when the subway arrives at that stop. Each of the city’s 468 subway stations would have note sets in different keys.
Now, he believes his plan finally has a chance, as the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority embarks on a $900,000-a-year project to improve passenger flow at some stations by repositioning turnstiles, furniture and emergency exits.
James Murphy, pictured in a New York subway station, thinks turnstiles should emit more pleasing sounds.Araby Williams/The Wall Street Journal
A separate project in the works will preserve the old turnstiles but eventually eliminate the need to swipe MetroCards through them. By 2019, according to the plan, subway riders will enter using devices such as a smartphone, card or key, embedded with an electronic chip.
The reason for the tones in the first place is simply to accommodate the blind: A single tone means “go,” a double tone means “swipe again” and a triple tone indicates insufficient fare.
The dissonance among machines is due to “natural technical variation and we really don’t care,” said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg. Many New Yorkers are probably completely oblivious to the tones and their meaning.
Mr. Lisberg said Mr. Murphy’s plan “is a very cool idea,” one that several people have independently proposed over the years. But it might be hard to put into practice, he said: It’s likely to require a lot of time and money, and probably means temporarily taking each of the city’s 3,289 turnstiles out of service, something the authority is not inclined to do “for an art project.”
“If you screw something up,” Mr. Lisberg continued, you risk breaking the turnstile. Given the 5.5 million passengers who use the system on an average weekday, he said the transit authority was “not inclined to mess with anything that could get in their way.”
Mr. Murphy, though, argues that his plan would cost very little, and labor could be saved if tone generators were installed or reprogrammed during the repositioning or along with the new mechanism that will detect passengers’ microchips.
Mr. Murphy, the well-known creator and lead singer of the now-defunct electronic-dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem, failed to land a meeting with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He’s more hopeful about his prospects with Mr. Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio: “If the mayor wanted this to happen, I know there’s someone who could make this work.”
Howard Wolfson, who served as deputy mayor under Mr. Bloomberg and writes a popular music blog, said he was approached about the idea but couldn’t help because the MTA is a state agency, not part of New York City government.
Mr. Murphy isn’t the only one lobbying for more euphonic turnstiles. In July James Kogan, freshly graduated from New York’s selective Stuyvesant High School, emailed the MTA’s arts department with a nearly identical proposal that would substitute “soothing chords” for the current sound of a turnstile, which he lamented was “a cold, dismissive beep.”
He said he could write the code himself that would tell turnstiles to generate notes at random from a given harmonic set. All he would need, he said, is one computer scientist familiar with turnstile language to help with the installation.
“This is not so difficult—I took some very basic computer programming,” said Mr. Kogan, a self-taught guitarist who is now a freshman at the University of Chicago. He said he got the idea while plucking chords on an African thumb piano called a kalimba.
Mr. Murphy, a subway geek whose smartphone is loaded with apps that suggest the most strategic train car and door to stand near in order to exit a station most efficiently, has lived in New York since the 1980s and is generally happy with the subway service. He said he gets “very angry when I see people jump fare.”
He said his subway-sound obsession began in the 1990s when he first rode the Tokyo metro and was blown away by the system’s friendly voices and “incredibly gentle beeps.” He was further inspired by trips through the Barcelona airport, which he said featured a signature four-note sequence before loudspeaker announcements. Mr. Murphy said the ditty reminded him of the opening notes of the group Chicago’s song “Colour My World.”
“In New York at the time, you had all this indistinguishable yelling and horrible ‘you’ve done something wrong’ sounds,” he said. “I became kind of obsessed with this idea that instead of just unpleasant, with almost no change at all, it could be beautiful.”
Unique harmonic sequences could also help cut down on riders missing their stops, Mr. Murphy added, while boosting their emotional connections to their neighborhoods.
So around 2001, the same year he started LCD Soundsystem and founded his record label, DFA Records, Mr. Murphy and his management team started approaching arts-funding organizations and city and state officials. They made little headway.
“An art project that integrates in with the turnstile—that’s like three different departments and no one’s going to agree,” Mr. Murphy said he was told repeatedly.
Still, Mr. Murphy forged ahead in his spare time, composing the note sequences for various subway lines in his head—the same way he writes songs.
Mr. Murphy played his last show with LCD Soundsystem in 2011. He is doing a lot of different things now. In addition to frequent solo DJ gigs, he produced Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire’s fourth studio album, “Reflektor,” and composed music for a revival of the play “Betrayal.”
He also created his own espresso blend in conjunction with Blue Bottle, a high-end coffee company, and is building a new studio in Williamsburg.
While his subway oeuvre is only partially complete, he is prepared to drop everything if the MTA gives his plan a green light.
“If it doesn’t happen I’ll be broken hearted,” he said.