MTA.ME—Turning the NYC Subway System Into an Interactive String Instrument

Juxtapoz // Wednesday, 02 Feb 2011
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This is the daily wow. We found out about MTA.me today, and on the site, Conductor turns the New York subway system into an interactive string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the piece begins in realtime by spawning trains which departed in the last minute, then continues accelerating through a 24 hour loop.

Conductor: www.mta.me from Alexander Chen on Vimeo.

In order for us to get this right, we have to just copy Alexander Chen's, who made the video, words on the matter.

Go to MTA.me first, for the full experience.


Project summary

At www.mta.me, Conductor turns the New York subway system into an interactive string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the piece begins in realtime by spawning trains which departed in the last minute, then continues accelerating through a 24 hour loop. The visuals are based on Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 diagram.


Subway Details

The piece follows some rules. Every minute, it checks for new trains launched from their end stations. The train then moves towards the end of the line, with its speed set by the schedule’s estimated trip duration. Some decisions were made for musical, aesthetic, and technical reasons, such as fading out routes over time, the gradual time acceleration, and limiting the number of concurrent trains. Also, I used the weekday schedule. Some of these limitations result in subtle variations, as different trains are chosen during each 24-hour loop.

The system has changed since 1972, and some lines no longer exist. For example, the 8 train, or the Third Ave El, was shut down in 1973. The former K train was merged into other routes. I decided to run these ghost trains between 12am-2am.

Music

Length determines pitch, with longer strings playing lower notes. When a string is in the middle of being drawn by a subway car, its pitch is continually shifting. The sounds are cello pizzicato from the wonderful freesound.org, a set recorded by corsica_s. A complete chromatic scale was too dissonant. Ultimately I settled on a simple major C scale but with the lowest note as a raised third E, which keeps it from ever feeling fully resolved.

More on Alexander Chen here.