Meet the Brooklyn Artist Who Beat James Murphy to the 'Subway Symphony' Idea

Ben Rubin
Ben Rubin
Peter Levi, for the Village Voice

James Murphy has long dreamt of transforming the New York City subway system with music. In February, the former LCD Soundsystem frontman unveiled plans to replace the grating, high-pitched frequencies of the subway turnstiles with a progression of soothing, melodic tones. While the project was seen as little more than a pipe dream at the time, last week Murphy announced he would be partnering with Heineken’s Open Your City campaign in the hopes of turning his vision into a reality.

Murphy’s cultural cachet and Heineken’s financial backing may indeed help push the project through the labyrinth of bureaucracy and red tape that is the New York City MTA, but the concept of a so-called “Subway Symphony” is hardly anything new. In the late 1990s, Ben Rubin, a Brooklyn-based sound artist and co-founder of the Office for Creative Research in Manhattan, took an almost identical proposal to city officials.

He, too, saw sound as a simple way of improving quality of life for sardine-packed subway riders during the rush hour commute.

But as the MTA had just installed new, MetroCard-friendly turnstiles at subway stations throughout the city, the thought of ripping each machine apart for modifications seemed impractical. Despite pages of research and analysis — numbers detailing how better sounds might push more people through the turnstiles, and how the current noises did little to inform commuters of whether their swipes were actually accepted — Rubin’s plan stalled after the initial presentation.

“In 1997, it felt more like a hypothetical kind of case study exercise. It was a great example of what could be,” he tells the Voice. “I’ve always believed that ideas themselves are not necessarily the valuable thing, it’s what you do with an idea that counts. So I’m really happy that [Murphy’s] doing something with this idea.”

Still, Rubin is curious how his work might have influenced Murphy’s thinking over the years. In the 1990s, Rubin served as a professor of sonic design at New York University’s prestigious Interactive Telecommunications Program and remained vocal about the need to improve the “soundscape” of the city’s public transportation system.

“I gave a lot of talks about this back in the Nineties and early 2000s, and I do wonder sometimes, like, did he see one of those talks?” says Rubin, who in recent years has become a successful multimedia artist, designing installations for the New York Times Building and the Public Theater in Manhattan. “Did that contribute to what inspired him to do it? I don’t know.”

Following the announcement of the partnership with Heineken last week, a researcher working with Murphy stumbled upon the data Rubin had gathered almost two decades ago and decided to reach out. The brief chat prompted Rubin to unearth and post several videos of his proposed project to YouTube.

Though the two have not had a chance to speak directly yet, for Murphy, knowing that someone like Rubin exists only serves to further validate his cause.

“I don’t want ownership of [the idea], so it makes me happy. The more people who feel like it’s a good idea, or feel like it’s their idea, the better, as far as I’m concerned. At a certain point, that just seems logical and/or inevitable,” Murphy tells the Voice. He says he’s been trying to make the project a reality for the past twenty years. “I’d love to see the video. I’d love to talk to [Rubin]. Anybody who has a perspective that they arrived at independently about this is gold as far as I’m concerned.”

The fact that two men both found fault with the irritable screeches of subway turnstiles and decided to do something about it is not hard to believe. But while Murphy seems to put a premium on musicality — envisioning a complex network where each station has a unique set of notes that harmonize when riders swipe their cards or a train arrives — Rubin is more concerned with practicality and user experience. The purpose of sound, he believes, should be based almost entirely on communication.

“I think if a sound is there only as an aesthetic nicety, I’m a little skeptical,” he says. “I’m not sure I want more sound without purpose in the subway.”

Like with the proposal in the Nineties, the MTA has told Murphy it can’t (and won’t) “take turnstiles out of service and risk disabling them for an art project.” But Rubin believes that the planned Second Avenue subway line — the first major expansion of the subway system in over half a century — might offer a unique and plausible opportunity for change. It has also been reported that the MTA is already in the midst of a $900,000 project to update the turnstiles with new technologies.

Despite the many obstacles, Rubin remains hopeful that this idea may actually come to fruition one day.

“If it could be demonstrated in the Second Avenue subway that it really made a big difference, then I think that would help make the case for why it would be a worthwhile investment,” Rubin says. “And I honestly believe it would. It would be a great improvement to the quality of life for subway riders.”

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