Move along with the soundtrack of Metro's screechy, wailing escalators

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 11:32 AM

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?

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