Public Transportation as an Interactive String Instrument (Video)

mta me conductor nyc subway instrument photo

Train Conductor, in the Musical Meaning of the Word
Public transit is our favorite way of moving large number of commuters around (except for walking and biking, when that's possible), but it's also - surprisingly - the inspiration for a piece of interactive art. Alexander Chen has taken New York City's MTA subway schedule and turned it into a kind of virtual string instrument: "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." Read on for a video that shows it in action.

Conductor: from Alexander Chen on Vimeo.

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. You can 'pluck' the strings with your mouse cursor by holding the left-click button and dragging over the string.

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. (source)

You can try it for yourself here (best to set your browser to full-screen mode):
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