Transit Maps Vol. 1

Introduction


 

I have always been fascinated by maps. As a child I liked tracing the lines of road maps while riding in the car with my dad. I poured over the maps of Israel and Jerusalem in the back of my study bible when I should have been paying attention in Sunday school, and like many others of my generation, I was enthralled watching New York kids chase Carmen Sandiego around a floor map on PBS. This fascination with maps has never gone away, and familiarizing myself with a city map is the first thing I do before traveling to a new place.

Transit maps took my nerdiness to another level. Growing up in Seattle, we never had much of a transit system, and even now with its rapid expansion, it’s still a long way from where it needs to be. So my first trips to cities with proper Transit Networks, like New York and Berlin, were magical encounters where I used maps to trace the very lifeblood of the the metropolis. I still remember the huge grin that crept across my face the first time I stepped onto a New York subway platform, feeling the pressure wind blow through my coat, hearing the gallop and snarl of those old subway cars roaring past. To this day, one of my favorite memories is the day I spent by myself in Berlin, hopping from station to station, exploring, encountering and getting lost in the best way possible.

It was when my wife bought me a few books of beautiful stylized maps from around the world that I decided I wanted to turn maps into music. I struggled for a few days trying to come up with ideas that worked, but the intricate and elaborate displays didn’t translate well into musical data, after some searching I discovered “Transit Maps of the World” by Mark Ovenden, which turned out to be the perfect source for the project.

 
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Each piece in this collection follows a different set of musical rules for composition, but most of the pieces do have a few common elements:

The most central idea to these pieces is based around the line colors. Every transit map has a number of different lines that are all different colors. In these works, each line or color has its own instrument assigned to it. With a quick ear, you can listen to most of these pieces and follow individual instruments as they travel up and down the rail lines.

This was one of my first forays into electronic music after graduating from Cornish. My original plan was to use a single electronic plug-in, Chromaphone 2, to create all the different instruments. This way I’d keep myself from being overwhelmed, and keep the pieces in the same sonic universe. I quickly abandoned this original idea and added other digital instruments, especially after my discovery of modular synthesis. The final instrumentation ended up being mostly Chromaphone 2 with other digital and physical synth voices mixed in.

Here I charted out what all of my Chromophone instruments for the entire project were supposed to sound like. I quickly abandoned the limitations I set myself.

Here I charted out what all of my Chromophone instruments for the entire project were supposed to sound like. I quickly abandoned the limitations I set myself.

 
 

I started each piece by translating the transit map into a flatter, elongated version, marking where stations and transfers occurred, so it was easier to follow for composition. (The exception being Osaka, which will be discussed later.) While music can be highly technical and mathematical, it isn’t a used as a precise form of measurement (not to my knowledge anyway). It seemed that the precision used in creating maps needed to be loosened a bit to fit a musical format. So none of the “measurements” I used to create these pieces required the use of a ruler. The distances between stations are eyeballed to the nearest unit appropriate.

With these basic building blocks, I was able to add more complex and individualized composition rules to the other pieces.

For this first set of transit pieces I didn’t pick maps that were particularly iconic or sentimental. I picked simple ones that would translate easily into musical data as I learned the process for how I would make these pieces. However now that I have some experience under my belt, I’m planning on continuing my works with more expansive systems like New York, Berlin and Tokyo.