A collection of train-inspired sound art by Alyce Santoro & Julian Mock

MOVEMENT #1: Prelude: Music for Train Whistles
debuted at Southern/Pacific, Lawndale Art Center, Aug. 2011




In the far west Texas towns of Marfa and Alpine the blast of train whistles punctuates the soundscape day and night. The sounds of trains are so common that many local residents learn to tune them out. Here at PREPARED EAR we became curious about how the chords used in train whistles were developed, since the sounds are neither so ominous as to keep frequent listeners constantly on edge, nor are they so cheerful or plain that they could be completely ignored. After much research, we discovered that most trains in the United States employ some variation on the K5H horn, which emits a D# minor 6th chord (D# F# A# C D#). Amtrak's "motive power development manager" Deane Ellsworth took it upon himself to develop a variation on this tone for it's fleet of trains, and in 1976 Mr. Ellsworth introduced the K5LA, tuned to a B major 6th chord.

For SOUTHERN PACIFIC SUITE Alyce deconstructed and reconstructed the two chords - including the Doppler Effect - using flute. Julian was inspired by the two chords to create the melody line, played on classic guitar.




southern pacific suite by alyceobvious




The following is message from D. H. Ellsworth himself, received on June 5, 2012 and printed here with permission:

Ms. Santoro:

I just enjoyed your Southern Pacific presentation featuring the K5H & K5LA locomotive air horns. Yours is, in fact, the second audio/visual prepared on this subject. I asked Canadian inventor Bob Swanson to retune his K5H horn for my use in America in 1976, subsequently listed by the Nathan Co. of New York as the K5LA model. I wanted something beautiful for our use at Amtrak in time for America's Bicentennial Year, and am flattered that so many agree I succeeded. A minor correction I might pass along is that Amtrak didn't have to tell me to do this, as I was Amtrak's managing developer of locomotives at that time; I got to tell myself to go get this done, picking my own musical notes to produce the K5LA's Major 6th chord, and going to Vancouver to meet with Swanson on my own time. It was a wonderful side-project, attempting to make Amtrak trains sound as nice as possible when giving audible warning of their approach.

BTW, did you retrieve that video camera before a train got it? (Just kidding...)

Thank you for your tribute! Your composition is a delight.


D.H. Ellsworth

I proceeded to inquire as to Mr. Ellsworth's musical background and how he had come to compose that particular chord and received the following response:

I am a musician solely by virtue of piano lessons as a youngster, playing the trumpet with the Cornell University Marching Band, teaching myself the guitar and also music notation so I could transcribe Gershwin piano rolls to sheet music, joining my wife singing in several choirs, and tape recording trains and whistles in stereo from 1969, none of it ever performed as a professional musician. I am a professional railroad mechanical engineer (retired) & photographer (still at it) of 42 years.

To the best of my knowledge, the first use of a Major 6th chord in North American railroading appeared in the early 1900's, when the Nathan Mfg. Co. of New York began marketing a five-chime steam whistle for locomotives designed to sound GBDEG (fourth piano octave). Fifty years later, inventor Robert Swanson (1905-1994), took it upon himself to design a chime-tone air horn who's voice would convince the average Joe that it's a train's voice: i.e., 'making trains sound like trains'... his exact words to me one day, and now the title of my book. His fourth try was a highly successful & marketable air horn for trains in Canada, the USA and eventually around the world. It was his "M" series, marketed through the Nathan Co. from 1950. Many of his M5 horns were tuned to sound C#EF#AC#, a gorgeous A Major 6th also in the fourth piano octave, and considered by many rail enthusiasts to be the prettiest locomotive air horn ever conceived. When the M's became too expensive to manufacture, by 1975, I took a look at Bob's newer K5H horn, an exceptionally well-engineered device he was using on trains in Canada, and asked him to retune it for me. I wanted a B Major 6th (flattening the #3 & #4 horn "bells" to make the chord) thereby Americanizing it for my use on Amtrak locomotives. Within a few years, nearly everybody's railroad in the US was (and still is) using them, or their K3LA sisters (D#F#B). I did not ask for a royalty, I just wanted to be able to hear Amtrak trains sounding this new voice I had given them.


MOVEMENT #2: Between Stations

BETWEEN STATIONS conisists of 14 tracks inspired by life in New York City, and is composed of sounds collected between 2002 and 2005 on and under the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn interwoven with a range of created and found sounds and music.

This collection of collages is recorded onto cassette tape and woven into an audible textile called SONIC FABRIC. The album has been played at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego as part of SOUNDWAVES: THE ART OF SAMPLING in 2006. It was broadcast via low-power radio transmission in Los Angeles' Union Station on April 14, 2012 as part of RADIO BREAK. For SOUTHERN/PACIFIC, the collection will be heard in Portland, Oregon in June, 2012.