Conductor: the sound of the New York subway

Conductor, by Alexander Chen, is a webpage that sonifies the new York subway schedule. The webpage draws the New York subway map onscreen in order of the schedule and when a lines crosses another one,  it triggers a note, akin to pulling a string. Conductor uses a combination of HTML, Javascript and Flash.

Mapping

Chen uses the famous Massimo Vignelli‘s 1972 design of the subway map, which simplifies the route network appearance by using only straight lines and 90- and 45-degree angles. when you open the webpage, the system starts drawing subway lines from their starting point using the schedule sourced from the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) API (the data feeds are free to use so you can develop your own apps as well). Each subway line acts as a string and when one line crosses another, it pulls the string, playing a cello sound. The pitch is dependent on the length, the longer the strong the lower the sound and vice versa.

Chrystie_Street_Service_Changes_Map
The 1972 subway map, designed by Vignelli and finalised by Joan Charysyn.

The sonification starts in actual time (1 second equals one 1 second), spawning the metro lines from the last minute when the webpage is loaded, but gradually increases in speed so that 24 hours are compressed in approximately 3 minutes.

Interaction

Besides the subway cars, the user can play the map as well, simply by clicking on a line segment and thus triggering a note.

About the Artist

Alexander Chen is a Creative Director at Google Creative Lab. MTA.me page was picked up by Google and he subsequently designed  This personal work led to the conception of the Les Paul Doodle, a Google doodle with generated 5.1 years worth of shared music around the world. He also made a visualisation of the Bach Cello Suites based on string physics, and a visualisation of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase. His personal projects have been featured by The New York Times, Wired, Fast Company, Wall Street Journal, and others.

At Google, he works on Chrome Music Lab (which is a collection of tools for exploring how music works) and A.I. Experiments (for exploring machine learning). He plays viola and other instruments, and is currently living in Massachusetts.

Related work

Another work that uses the New York subway, albeit in a different way, is the Two Trains sonification of income inequality by Brian Foo, about which I wrote in an earlier post.

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