Posted by: kaleidophonic | June 19, 2012

“Fanfare for the Common Man”: Montréal’s Melodious Metro

I’ve been writing a lot lately. The dissertation progresses, and my current chapter deals with Montréal’s urban soundscape in the 1960s and 1970s. While writing a chunk about the Montréal Metro, which was widely touted as being the quietest underground subway in the world, I also commented on another unique feature of Montréal’s metro, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here on my blog.

Sometimes, alert metro passengers may detect a curious three-note melody that can be heard as the train pulls away from the platform. This three-note sound has recently become a feature on the metro’s orange line: an electronic version of the melody plays just prior to departure, alerting passengers to clear the doors. To the musically educated, these three notes may seem vaguely familiar. Indeed, they are the same three notes that open one of the most important musical works of the 20th century: Aaron Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man. The opening notes of Copeland’s classic signal the departure of each train, seemingly a strange ode by machine to passengers. As Tom Vanderbilt has noted, the metro’s little melody is strangely appropriate:

Fanfare for the Common Man, one of the most famous pieces of 20th century American music, is a kind of poetically appropriate choice. As Alex Ross notes in The Rest is Noise, its title was drawn from a speech by New Deal firebrand Henry Wallace, “Century for the Common Man,” and if there’s any place for celebrating such a creature and such ideals it’s on the crowded platform of a grand municipal project. As music, moreover, it’s stirring and anthemic — in a quiet way, if that’s possible — and in the Metro it seems to bring a kind of heroism to the everyday departure.

But is the metro’s little melody an accident of mechanical acoustics, or an appeal to our sonic imaginaries, triggering the piece in the minds of the masses as they hum through the subterranea of the metropolis? Bombardier representative David Slack, in an interview with Vanderbilt, helped clear up some of the mystery. It is only certain cars that make this sound, the MR-73s, whose traction motors feature something called a “direct current chopper.” These choppers produce interrupted pulses of current as the train accelerates. However, a by-product of these pulses is a range of “undesirable harmonics and noises.” In order to remedy this problem the metro’s engineers added a device to the motors designed to filter out these “unwanted harmonics,” but this device doesn’t filter out all the sounds, and, among other tones that are undetectable by the human ear, the three tones of Copland’s classic remain. “The fact that the remaining tones resemble music or Copland’s piece is purely coincidental,” David Slack claims. “They are somewhat pleasant, though, so the project engineers chose to leave this interesting characteristic intact during design of the trains.” Vanderbilt wonders whether a Copland fan lurked amidst the ranks of the engineers. “What are the chances,” he asks, “that this would happen in a city whose Expo ’67 – a year after the Metro debuted – featured as one of its theme songs Fanfare for the Common Man?” 

For those of you out there who are sound geeks, this wonderful little accident of design won’t be around much longer. The Société de Transport de Montréal (STM) will begin replacing the old metro cars (some of which have been in service since the metro was opened in 1966) in 2014. I have to wonder if they will maintain some kind of reference to the tones (such as the melody that plays on the Orange line when the doors close). Its a sonic icon of the city, and some of you might even remember the use of the melody in a campy little commercial for the metro that aired in the 1970s, “Il fait beau dans l’metro!” (“It’s nice in the metro”) as well as a more recent parody, “Il fait chaud dans l’metro!” (“It’s hot in the metro!”).

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