Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bernstein under Broadway

As the No. 2 train of New York's subway system pulls out of Times Square Station, it seems to sing the opening line ("There's a place for us . . .") of "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."

"The sound is a fluke. Newer trains run on alternating current, but the third rail delivers direct current; inverters chop it into frequencies that can be used by the alternating current motors, said Jeff Hakner, a professor of electrical engineering at Cooper Union. The frequencies excite the steel, he said, which — in the case of the R142 subway cars — responds by singing 'Somewhere,' " Jim Dwyer writes in The New York Times:

This brings to mind an acoustical anamoly from my youth. Late at night, something outside my bedroom window seemed to play, over and over, the low-pitched warble that launches the clarinet glissando at the beginning of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." For a long time, I thought there was an obsessive, insomniac clarinetist in the neighborhood. I asked around — no such person. Was it an owl? An electrical transformer? The eaves of some house creaking? I never found out.