Published by

Notes From Underground

Email a Friend

In 1972, graphic designer Massimo Vignelli created a stripped-down, minimalist map of New York City's subway system that has been both celebrated and reviled. Celebrated for its classic, modernist elegance; reviled for its distorted scale. (Central Park was compressed into a small, gray square.) Now, almost four decades later, New York City-based programmer, designer and musician Alexander Chen has taken that iconic layout and turned it into an abstract-geometric online digital instrument that plays itself.

Residing entirely online, the piece is simply titled, and it takes its form entirely from the New York City subway system. Log on to the site and a series of animated lines begin to crisscross the page, mimicking the city's train routes (as depicted in Vignelli's 1972 map) over the course of 24 hours. Each time two trains intersect, you hear the sound of a note being plucked on a cello -- turning the visuals into an abstract musical improvisation. During the day-time portion of the schedule, the screen is white. At night, it goes black. Want to add another layer? Place your cursor on a subway line and pluck it like a string. Voilà! The D train is now an instrument. (You can see a video of the work below.)

Chen, who is as much a hacker as he is a musician (he has been playing piano since he was five; viola, since he was in the fourth grade), says that the project arose out of the desire to create a digital version of a string instrument. But it soon evolved. "I have an interest in turning everyday objects into musical instruments," he explains.

In college at the University of Pennsylvania he created Sonata for the Unaware, a composition inspired by the random movements of commuters at a train station. It has since been shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, here in New York.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Chen, whose day-job is as an interactive graphic designer -- and who plays in two bands: a solo project called Consulate General, and a duo known as Boy in Static -- about cello sounds, ghost trains and old school subway maps.

Vignelli's subway map was quite controversial in its day. Why use it as the basis of your project? Vignelli's map is a classic. It's iconic in graphic design circles. What's interesting is that he didn’t consider it a literal map. He considered it a diagram of subway stops. That’s what a lot of New Yorkers had trouble with. People look at a map and they want to get a sense of distance. But he did it as a clean diagram that just showed stops and intersection points. I'd read about how people considered the map overly minimal at the time. But from a formal perspective, it looks so beautiful on a page. I love to look at his map. That's something designers struggle with: making something that has aesthetic value versus being useful.

There were subway lines featured in Vignelli's map that are no longer in existence (such as the 8 train). How did you account for this in your piece? To be clear, while the piece uses current train schedule data as supplied by the MTA, it’s not a live map. It doesn’t track actual trains. Obviously there’s no data for the trains that no longer exist -- like the 8. But since they were on Vignelli's map, I thought it’d be fun to still run them. In my schedule, they run from 12am to 2am. These are trains that only show up in the middle of the night.

Do you have any favorite intersections in terms of the sounds produced? There are some spots I like, like the long trains running down the middle. When I was tuning the instrument, I was thinking about the sound the map would have. I wanted those long trains to have these big grace notes. There’s a real roundedness there.

When I launched the piece, it began at 3:47pm. Why the odd time? The piece starts at whatever time you launch the website. It begins at the current time, then it speeds up as you watch it and quickly goes through a 24-hour cycle. It plays itself differently depending on the time that you open it. It's slightly different every time.

Why the cello? Aren't there other sounds that would be more subway-like? I thought the pizzicato worked out well on a cello for technical reasons -- and I just love the sound of it. I had originally I tried creating sounds on my viola, but the cello has 50 percent more range at the lower end. This is a much more interesting way to hear the subway -- and quite different from the way you're used to hearing it.

The viewer can pluck the subway lines. Why make this interactive? I was really interested in making this into a real Web site. The piece might feel like a live visualization of the official MTA site, but it's not. I wanted it to have an aspect that made it superior to just watching video. Here, you can watch trains move and grab them, you can steal sounds from them. It's really about allowing people to perform with it.

View -- and play -- Chen's piece at Find a further explanation of the project on his blog.