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This synaesthetic composer turned the tube map into music

James Manning
Written by
James Manning

Composer Daniel Liam Glyn used his synaesthesia to recreate the London Underground in musical form. He tells us how he got fixated on the tube map and made the ‘Changing Stations’ album…

For as long as I can remember I’ve always visualised numbers, letters and words in my mind in colour. Even days of the week, months of the year and years themselves would have a specific colour in my mind, all mapped out like a diagram of the stars. I assumed that was how everyone’s mind worked: that everyone had colours for certain words or letters. It was only when I got older and started to read up on it that I realised I had both grapheme-colour and spatial sequence synaesthesia: a neurological phenomenon which makes a person perceive words, letters, shapes, and numbers in colour, or sometimes taste and smell.

Then in 2010 I moved to London. I’d just finished a degree in music and I was looking for things to inspire me to compose, when one day I got fixated on the London Underground map. I started to come up with an idea that combined the colours of the map with my experiences riding the tube: the types of commuters on different lines, the smells and the atmosphere. Unlike some synaesthetic musicians, I’ve never actually been able to hear in colour. But by matching the colours of the tube lines to different letter keys, I could turn what I saw in my head into music. The letter A to me is red, so I started writing a Central line piece around the key of A major. I see F as green, and F# minor is traditionally a very gloomy, lethargic key: perfect for the District line, with all its delays.

The titles of the tracks were devised from my thoughts and feelings riding each line. Bakerloo is called ‘Monday’ because the feel of that line reminded me of a very slow Monday morning: it’s almost a reluctant atmosphere. The Central line track is called ‘Diameter’: something fast cutting, straight through the middle of the Circle line. The Circle itself inspired ‘Loop’: a piece in C major, because the letter C is yellow. C major is the simplest of keys – it’s childlike – which seemed to match the shape of the line too. I was lucky: everything seemed to work towards the concept.

I did get a little bit paranoid that the album was becoming self-involved – being all about my own experiences – so I spoke to other people and recorded them talking about different tube lines: just words, a few sentences or a funny story. I wanted to get the commuters of London – the people who live there and use that system every single day – telling their stories. One line I didn’t have much personal experience of was the Piccadilly. While I was researching it I learnt that the Piccadilly line was the one most affected by the 7/7 bombings, so the track features a voiceover by a gentleman named David who shared his story of being on the carriage behind the one that was bombed, what happened on the day and how it has affected him since. To do the project justice I felt I had to delve into all areas of the Underground’s history: good and bad.

The whole project took me three years on and off to compose, plus another year to get Kickstarter funding, get musicians on board and record it (a process that included putting Oyster cards and paper tube maps between the strings of a piano). It started off as such a simple idea and it grew into a mammoth project. Now people are asking me what’s next: am I going to do trains, or the Manchester Metrolink? But ‘Changing Stations’ wasn’t just about transport: it was all about the London tube and its instantly recognisable map. Interview by James Manning

Changing Stations is available now to buy or stream.

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