Below The East River

I’m often surprised by the sounds that emerge from the water and what they can tell us. This winter I lowered an experimental hydrophone from Pier 6 in Brooklyn, hoping to record the drones of passing ships. (Each engine has its own signature sound. The Doppler shifting frequencies remind me of Shepard Tones or the work of Jean-Claude Risset.) After a few minutes I was surprised to hear the unmistakable sound of a passing subway train!? It repeated every few minutes but there were no tracks in sight. An underwater mystery?

A little map sleuthing revealed that the Joralemon Street Tunnel runs beneath the riverbed nearby. It was the first underwater subway tunnel connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it currently carries the 4 & 5 trains. Its two cast iron tubes have been leaking their vibrations into the water since 1907, rumbling every few minutes like a vast submerged clock, only stopping for construction delays, natural disasters, and occasional derailments. The sounds reflect along the contours of the river, touching the seawalls and beaches with their echoes. I wonder how the coastline has changed since then? How did the river sound before all this?

Meanwhile, the air above seems practically silent. I can see the trains crossing the Manhattan Bridge in the distance but I hear nothing.

Image courtesy Wikimedia:,_1913.jpg

Further Reading:

There was an accident during construction of the Joralemon Street Tunnel that sent Dick Creedon flying into the sky, ejected from the pressurized chamber below on a geyser of compressed air. Miraculously he survived.

58 Joralemon Street is “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator”, a residential row-home that was converted to a ventilation shaft and emergency exit for the Joralemon tunnel.

This recording is part of my ongoing practice of “auscultation”: listening to the vibrations of objects and underwater environments, revealing hidden interiors like a doctor’s stethoscope probing the systems of the body. This helps me to consider my relationship to the more-than-human as I stretch my ears to practice other ways of listening, communicating, and inhabiting the world. See my other recordings and writings related to auscultation.