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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Cable Car Tropes (MP3)

Like many city landmarks recognized far beyond the city’s border, the cable cars of San Francisco are arguably more beloved by visitors than by residents. It’s regularly pointed out that far more tourists than taxpayers actually ride the old cable cars, in contrast with other forms of public transportation, like the bus or rapid-transit systems. I used to walk to work between Union Square and North Beach most weekday mornings, and on the rainier ones I would occasionally use my MUNI pass to hop the trolley just to make it up the steep, Thiebaud-like edifice that is Powell Street.

These cable cars are massive old rattly machines — not because they’re worn down, but because the rattling they emit is exactly the sort of sound that engineers now strive to reduce. A lot of the rattling isn’t even in the cars themselves, but results from where the cars meet the metal tracks on which they run. Think what you may of the extent to which the cable cars represent modern San Francisco, they truly emit a local sound — a sound different than a suburban light rail, or an urban subway, or the street cars of New Orleans.

Local sound-maker Sarah Brown, who goes by Esbie (as in her initials spoken aloud), recognizes the simple pleasures of those sounds, and she sought to amplify them in a recent experiment, titled “Trolley Through Quartz”:

There’s a change in pitch in there early on, an initial series of rises that sketches a kind of arrhythmic set of measures. They aren’t quite aligned to beats, these pitches, but they take the raw source material and lend a melodic overlay in a manner that involves a sense of progression. In time, the process gets more complicated: pitches shift down, sounds get scrambled. The end result remains sonorous throughout — well, sonorous if you appreciate the implicit attraction of the cable cars themselves.

Brown describes the track’s genesis at esbie.blogspot.com:

A couple months ago (during the Chinese parade if I remember right) I recorded the very strange sound that the trolley tracks in San Francisco make. The recording is dirty, lots of people talking etc. But I did my best to clean it up anyway and turn it into a piece of sorts.

The track is located at soundcloud.com/esbie. More on Brown/Esbie at esbie.blogspot.com. Her work was previously featured here back in December of last year: disquiet.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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