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Posted at 1:43 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Musical stairs: Listening to the secret music of Metro's run-down escalators

By Chris Richards

Metro escalatorsPhoto illustration by Christopher Meighan.

Take the west side escalators down into the guts of the Columbia Heights Metro station and you'll be swallowed by the sound - an otherworldly mewl of screeching metal, an aviary of chrome-throated ravens taunting you as you descend into your workday.

But slow down a minute. Step to the right, unclench the jaw and ask yourself: Could this be music?

There's a secret jazz seeping from Washington's aging Metro escalators - those anemic metal walkways that fill our transit system with a crooked approximation of Ornette Coleman. Like human breath pushing through polished brass, they honk and bleat and squawk and . . . why are you still wearing those earbuds?

Every rush hour is a chance to immerse yourself in the accidental music of worn-down Washington. But it can only sound like music if you want it to.

"There can be aestheticized ways of listening," says Emily Thompson, a professor at Princeton specializing in the cultural history of sound. "You really are listening for rhythms, consonances or dissonances in a way that allows you to makes cultural sense of your environment . . . I think turning your environment into art is something that anyone can do."

So do it. Listen to the west entrance at Petworth. It's all honk and grind - the clatter of a hundred bop quartets cooking from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The escalators at Benning Road drone like an Indian tambura while arbitrary notes squeak and blurt, as if leaked from Pharoah Sanders' saxophone.

Farragut North offers a 39-second ascent to Connecticut Avenue that's both blissful and bizarre - like all the late-period John Coltrane albums simultaneously spinning in wobbly slow motion. (The 1966 watershed LP where Coltrane broke into free jazz? "Ascension.")

Keren Veisblatt, a Washington expat back in town for a conference, steps off of Farragut North's braying escalators in a fit of laughter. Does she hear the music? Not really.

"They sound ridiculous," she says, striding out into the daylight.
Listening tips

On the flip side of every Metro fare card, you'll find a list of five escalator safety tips. Hold your kid's hand, use the handrails, that sort of thing.

How about a few escalator listening tips?

Here's one from the late John Cage: "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating."

The lesson of Cage's defining 1952 composition "4'33," was not to enjoy the so-called silence of the pianist sitting motionless at the keys, but to listen more intently to the subtle sonic information that's constantly fluttering around us. What would he have thought of the escalators at the Smithsonian station's Mall entrance? On a snowy weekday afternoon, they feign calm, then yelp out three ornery notes - first an E, then up an octave, then down to B-flat.

There's percussion, too. Caught in the escalator's maw - the iron fangs you always feared would bite the shoelaces off your Buster Browns - a mangled receipt hisses like an open hi-hat as the motors pump out a dutiful downbeat.

Tourists heading home after a day at the National Gallery surrounded by more purposeful works of art? They only hear noise, gliding down the escalators in twos and fours, wincing at the sounds underfoot.

"They need oil," says Bill Spedding, visiting from San Antonio. "It sounds like metal on metal."

Close. Metal on plastic. "The noise is the result of a small plastic device that is installed on the escalators," says Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. "It's designed to protect the metal panels [that line each side of the escalator's steps] from being damaged by the steps and . . . eliminate any long-term outages."

Squeaky contact points are frequently lubricated to keep the escalators running quietly, but heavy rains, salty slush and seesawing temperatures can alter the levels of friction, and, in turn, the sounds that each escalator makes.

When those little plastic pieces start chafing against the escalator steps, the band is warming up. Squeaks turn into creaks. Tiny squalls become tenor wails. Saxophonish sneezes give way to the ghost of Johnny Griffin trying to cram every note he ever blew between Bling-blong "Doors opening" and the surface of the Earth.

But like the frequently broken-down escalators themselves, Metro's music is unreliable. If you stop at Rosslyn to listen to the majesty of the sprawling four-track escalators, for example, you may encounter a giant hush, even when the stairs are moving.

Last autumn, those trundling tracks sang like a mob of drunken whales pantomiming the complete recorded works of Don Cherry - deep, loopy, sonorous notes that the station's cavernous concrete tunnel amplified into the streets of Arlington.

But on a cold January afternoon, they're mum. Five smeared notes come eking out on the ride up, barely disrupting the engines' white noise.

Rosslyn needs rain.
Labeling the sounds

Is it just noise? If you want to call it that, sure.

"Most of the research on noise shows that people use the label 'noise' to denigrate sound they don't want to hear," says Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University in Montreal whose research explores the role of sound technologies in Western culture. (And that means any sound - not just rumbling jets and squealing brakes.) "It can often be a cloak for broader political issues. Noise complaints can be used in zoning law to get rid of people."

In cities, its absence would be nothing short of alarming. "Noise is a part of modern urban life," Sterne says. "If the city was totally quiet, people should be disturbed."

Imagine the horror of a silent city: Streets with no hum, sidewalks with no chatter, mute breezes, dead voices, a big silent no-place.

In many ways, noise is existence. So instead of trying to cancel it out with cellphones and iPods, seek it out. Take the Red Line out to Wheaton, home of the longest escalators in the Western hemisphere. Measuring 230 feet in length, they provide a subterranean journey that lasts 2 minutes and 44 seconds. So much musical potential. Giant steps.

Yet, they hardly make a sound - just the drowsy murmur of one set going up, one set going down (and one set awaiting repairs).

It's far from silent. True, there are no phantom trumpets heralding your ascension to terrestrial Montgomery County, but squint your ears. Listen to the escalator engines' meditative rhythm, cool and even like a sleeping drum machine. Listen to the impatient patter of human footsteps quietly rebelling against the escalator's master tempo.

Even if Metro ever gets all of its escalators running this smoothly, they'll never lose their secret music. We'll only have to listen more carefully.

By Chris Richards  | January 14, 2011; 1:43 PM ET
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