Rapid Transit

This entry, hewing closely to the Sepia Saturday theme of tunnels, is primarily audiocentric rather than photographic, but bear with me! I just wanted to share...

Some background: Last year I traveled to the Bay Area to meet some long lost relatives. That alone was a cosmic experience.

But I was particularly shaken -- and not just physically -- while traveling on the rapid transit system from the airport to Oakland. The sound -- the pure noise, if you will -- that the train makes, especially as it passes through its long tunnel beneath the bay, is extraordinary. Not only almost painfully loud, but the otherwordly microtonal polyharmonics and polyrhythms that emanate from the rails chilled my soul.

I recommend that you put everything aside for 11 minutes, put on some headphones, turn the volume up to maximum, and then sit back as this video plays. Close your eyes to fully appreciate the subtle, metamorphing complexity of the sound.

...There, wasn't that effing amazing?  I could not help, as I sat there in my train seat, but be reminded of the dramatic, magnificent cacophony of Gyorgy Ligeti's "Requiem," popularized in "2001: A Space Odyssey." (Here's the pertinent excerpt.)

...Interestingly, many scenes accompanying the Ligeti look remarkably like you're travelling down a cosmic tunnel...

While we're at it, here's another terrific maelstrom of a composition that I was reminded of during that ride, by the European group, Magma.

...And magma of course is known to create "lava tubes."

(Photo from http://www.campingroadtrip.com/outdoor-living-newsletter-august-2012/best-caves-and-caverns)


  1. Well thanks for the ride I never took on BART. They were building the system when I was working in San Francisco - commuting to work from the East Bay - and I knew I'd probably never ride it once it was finished - that I'd stick with the bus crossing the bay on the bridge as not only am I somewhat claustrophobic, but I'd miss the views of the bay. On the other hand the trip under the bay takes a lot less time than crossing it on the bridge so who knows, I might have sucked up my fear & done it. As it happened I moved out of the area just before BART began running so I was saved from having to make that decision. That video, however, does cast sufficient doubt on my deciding to ride BART under the bay!

  2. Wonderful! The soundscape of a tunnel must be unique for each one. The dimensions would define the key pitch, the train's speed and the condition of the tracks would add variables. I noticed the same effect on the London underground system. Some of the older trains had no air conditioning in the cars, now since replaces, so the open windows created a wind noise that changed pitch when entering of leaving the deep platform stations. The Ligeti definitely has a strong resemblance to the BART. That kind of music is very rarely programmed today as orchestras would need to invest a lot of rehearsal time for musicians to learn the style and calibrate it for their concert hall.

  3. I couldn't do the headphones and I'm not sure I could ride BART, either, not only because of the "music" but also because it's underground. But thanks for the experience!

  4. I wonder if regular commuters use ear plugs or sound-cancelling headphones?

  5. I'm glad that I'm not the only person who feels compelled to record sound while on a train....I just recorded the sound of our airtrain on my mobile phone because I was so intrigued by it. I laughed while watching this with my son because just as I said to him "I would feel weird sitting on that train with one other person in the carriage....I would feel I need to go and sit closer to them..." ...you did exactly that...moved up the carriage....although I'm sure if I was the other person I would feel nervous knowing the other person in the carriage was moving closer. We are an odd species indeed.

    1. Yes, the etiquette in trains is very particular, especially empty ones! I should point out that the BART video is not mine, it's just one i found on YouTube.

    2. Yes, the etiquette in trains is very particular, especially empty ones! I should point out that the BART video is not mine, it's just one i found on YouTube.