City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Boston/Cambridge Diary: Sounds

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Part of Boston/Cambridge Diary series

This being City of Sound it seems fair to comment on a few of the aural charms of Boston and Cambridge. I’ll get the first one out the way quickly as, rather sadly, I’m still delighted by the chirp of the crickets at night – such a romantic sound to these North European ears. I know, big deal right? How my American colleagues chuckled.

Elsewhere, the sounds were of the generic North American city. Engagingly different police sirens; the perennial hum of ‘never far away’ freeways; a panoply of American accents (which all sound the same to me, I’m afraid); the odd seagull, straining to make itself heard above the city; the near-subsonic crunching boom of some playa’s mobile sound-system, or ‘car’ as they’re sometimes known … The crazies on the streets are variations of those I hear in London, but more jittery freeform beat poet than ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. Perhaps I’m romanticising that which shouldn’t be.

Under the streets, the announcements on the subway – or ‘T’ – were fairly variable. No Tokyo-like tones for different stations here. Instead, drivers announced upcoming stops in pretty variable fashion, depending on their whim – sometimes. But at least they weren’t pre-recorded and stripped of local accent. It’s always a delight to hear these functional, spoken communications, which are essentially just a series of intoned names (reminds me of Rodcorp’s notes on Eliot’s Wasteland and Wells’ War Of The Worlds). There’s little more local than this, in some respects – “Alewife”, “Downtown Crossing”, “Symphony”, “Mechanics”, “Charles/MGH”, “Mattapan”, “Maverick”, “Wonderland”, “Chinatown”, “Boylston”, “Bowdoin” …

While we’re on the ‘T’, and in terms of ‘organised sound’, I particularly enjoyed a quite lovely sound sculpture constructed by local artist Paul Matisse (handy name for an artist) in 1987. Called ‘The Kendall Band’, it’s situated in the Kendall Square/MIT subway station. One part of this sculpture – ‘Pythagoras’ – is a series of hammers and bells hanging in between the incoming and outgoing tracks, which can be manipulated by passengers pulling levers on the platform.

“Pythagoras is a set of long tube bells tuned in B minor struck by a line of pendulum hammers. When the passenger moves the handle on the station wall, the hammers swing back and forth, striking the tubes. The short tubes create the high pitches, and the long tubes the low. If a person swings at the right frequency, he can access both sets of tones.” [from The MIT Tech]

It takes a while to learn to move the lever according to the rhythms of the slowly swinging hammers, but not long – and the sound produced is gorgeous – deep thudding tones which rise and fall out of the different rhythms and noise of the incoming subway trains.


I saw a great busking duo on Newbury Street in Boston. A guy playing drums, while another guy squeezed sounds out of an ancient or home-made analog synth (Moog-like or SH-101-like squelches and gurgles). Even better, both wore masks, which to these British eyes were reminiscent of the legendary Kendo Nagasaki. They whipped up a storm and whipped up a crowd. There’s more about them at, including their laudable mission to literally take electronica to the streets.

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I also witnessed some of the worst buskers I have ever heard – amidst the mish-mash of conjured tradition and busy interchange of Harvard Square, a white man dressed as in traditional Indian costume (Indian as in Raj rather than Native American) playing woefully ‘pretty’ classical guitar in the English folk tradition, while the thin reedy tones of a callow bookish girl floated to little effect around the guitar’s unnecessary ornamentation. This was amplified, somehow to even littler effect, towards the captive seats of Au Bon Pain where an audience were held either a) spellbound, or b) mummified.

To finish on a more positive note, I was taken to a decent bar in Cambridge – The Plough and Stars, I seem to remember – by my hosts-for-a-day at WGBH’s fine interactive team, to hear some local bands try out. The bar was packed, noisy and tiny – and all the better for it. The music was variations on the classic American form – as their site says, that’s “everything from blues to country and even rock and roll.” (Phew! The full gamut, then. Reminds me of the gag about liking both kinds of music, country and western.) But the music was not so shabby for all that. And it was a darn good place to hear it.


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