James Murphy Sets Out to 'Musicalize' Your Subway Experience

James Murphy is a bona fide icon of the 21st century in music. As the writer and lead singer of dance-rock collective LCD Soundsystem, he has produced some of the millennium’s down-right funkiest albums yet made. But after a controversial decision to split the band up in 2011, he has kept himself busy with a variety of projects that have kept him out of the spotlight, notably producing Arcade Fire’s recent album Reflektor, starting his own signature blend of coffee, and opening a wine bar in his longtime home of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

His talent for composing is now back into the spotlight with this latest project, a monumental effort to ‘musicalize’ the New York City subway system. Titled the Subway Symphony project, Murphy has developed a program that will equate each swipe of a citygoer’s Metrocard with an accompanying musical tone. The more swipes, the more tones, so during a Manhattan rush hour the result would be a lilting, electronic melody, a marked improvement from the storm of mechanical beeps that currently score the stations. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer had the chance to sit down with Murphy to elaborate a little more on this ambitious project, where they discussed the nature of music, his genuine love for public transportation, and DJ-ing a show for a party of ‘science guy’ engineers.

I just saw you DJ a show in Washington DC a couple months ago, you killed it!

Oh yeah! That 930 Club is such a great venue, and when my band was playing there years ago I got obsessed with the balcony attached to the dressing room. All I could think was ‘Oh man, I want to DJ from this balcony and use the stage as a dancefloor!’ And when they asked me to do it I made that only my condition. It becomes so much like an old club…suddenly. I actually DJ’d a show one time with my in-laws. My father in law is an engineer of some kind, and they came and threw a party. And there were a bunch of grey-haired engineers dancing on stage. Science guys? They’re the coolest.

So when/how did you get the idea for this subway project?

Well I’m a longtime subway rider, I’ve lived and ridden here since the 80’s. And I took a trip to Tokyo in the late 90’s and took a subway around. And I was surprised at how pleasant the sounds in their trains were. They have these nice little tones that indicate things, and I thought ‘Oh, this is really nice.’ I had never thought about the sounds of the subway in New York, it just was what it was. And I couldn’t help but think…what if that ‘beep’ that happens was a nice tone instead of a ‘beep’? And what if they were musical? What if there were different notes for different swipes?

And this is all programmed?

Yeah, it’s built on a probability engine. So when it’s busy it’ll make music, like a complete melody. And each station can have different, unique music. Music is pre-linguistic, you hear music before you hear words. It’s a little closer to your body’s natural motion. I want people’s commutes to be less of a grind, and to have beauty enter as a part of your daily routine.

So did you spend time in the studio writing these sounds out?

Yes, but I really don’t want to take individual credit for this project. It’s not one person’s job or right to pick all that music. I’m hoping for the future that it will be a bunch of different artists who can contribute that are all emblematic of New York. Maybe some kids at a good music program in a public school who could work with composers. I’d love to have Philip Glass or Jay-Z, just a really wide variety of people that can make music for this project. We’re a great music city, it’s one of our great exports—culture, art and creativity are our number one export. And I’d love to pull as many people as we can together to work on this project.

What do you think was the most challenging part about making this project happen?

I think the most challenging part is still to come. It’s to get it to actually happen. So far, it’s been an easy idea. When I explain it to people it sounds logical, that it works. The next hurdles were technological, but now we have built some prototypes and we’ve been doing research into the MTA’s (Metro Transit Authority) note modifier to see how it works. Next we’ll have to tackle how it will work for most New Yorkers—how to make it work for the hearing and visually impaired. And the last stage will be making it an easy enough yes for the MTA to implement it.

Do you like riding the subway? Is this project a way of combatting your aggression to the commute?

Not at all! I’m a big subway fan, I really am, and after traveling around the world, nothing is as extensive, available, and cheap as the New York City subway. So how do I not burden the MTA with this? The goal is to present them to this as easily as possible.

I see a lot of comparisons with this project and your Tennis Data Remixes project, in that both are equating musical notes to the sounds of real life. Can anything be given a musical translation?

I think to a certain degree, and this depends on your definition of music, but yes. Probability is an interesting way of working with music. It’s constantly surprising and evolving, and it’s harmonious. You can’t have something that plays statically over and over.

Can we expect an EP of Subway Tones Remixes?

My dream is that this gets done and I don’t have to make any remixes (laughs). No more!

James Murphy photographed exclusively for Milk Made by Andrew Boyle

Visit the ‘Subway Symphony’ project’s website here

If you haven’t already, start listening to LCD Soundsystem right here

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