These Trains are Music

At 12.30pm today:

‘The Boy Who Watched Trains’ is a radio documentary. The broadcast is 24 minutes long: the time it takes to complete one full circle journey on the Glasgow Subway. The artist invites the listener on a journey, both in time and place, to the intimate world of a mother and son, who live in Glasgow. The listener is given a rare insight into the private world of a mother’s journey, with her autistic son, who is engrossed and soothed by the sound and motion of the Glasgow Subway and its trains.

The modern world is full of noise that, for people with autism, it is a frightening and unpredictable place. Everyday situations can be terrifying, overwhelming and extremely daunting for an autistic child. They can spend their whole life trying to self-regulate the chaos of unprocessed stimuli, in their inner and outer worlds. This boy’s daily subway routine with his mother, in Glasgow Subway’s Inner and Outer Circle, builds a bridge between his inner and outer world, and builds one too, between the mother and son: as they learn from one another on their journey together in life.

The boy makes sense of the daunting world around him by seeking out the sounds of the Glasgow Subway and uses them to regulate his inner world. The boy fixates and is dependant on the familiarity of the stations, platforms, and trains. He is soothed by their repetition, speed, predictability and security. Even though these subway spaces are not quiet or calm environments: they are familiar to the boy, who focuses on the repetition and predictability of the louder external sounds, which drown out his inner anxieties. The boy’s embodiment of the subway, trains, and all its layers of sound, is the boy’s very own coping strategy. This is an example of a boy cleverly self-regulating by bringing coherence, in such a noisy, chaotic and confusing world.

The mother’s autism journey begins when she notices he is obsessed with trains, through to diagnosis/ post-diagnosis and how she comes to terms with her son’s ASD diagnosis. Initially, feeling lonely and isolated on her journey: she speaks openly about deeply personal feelings she has never shared out-with family. A frank and fleeting glimpse into her journey, almost like an overheard subway conversation. Her dialogue is interspersed with subway sounds, and her son speaking and mimicking the trains that he loves. She is not a ‘hashtag autism’ mum and is still working out how to cope and help and support her son on their journey. The artist conveys this by recording the subjects spontaneously, unrehearsed, unprepared, unpolished and with authentic pauses as the mother searches for the right words or struggles with memory recall. It is a true emotional journey as we follow the young child and his mother recounting their daily Glasgow Subway rituals and the mother’s vulnerability and realness are captured.

The artist is a friend of both mother and son and wishes to reach out to her to tell her she is doing great and hopes to connect to the listener, and Glasgow as a city, as it moves forward in both subway modernisation and autism support and awareness. Just as the boy stands out and raises awareness on his daily commutes: this broadcast too is autism in action. The story of a mother and son who have coped on their journey with the assistance of what the Glasgow Subway offers to a child fascinated and dependant on its trains: their multi-layered sounds, repetition, motion, predictability and security. The artist therefore hopes too, that other families perhaps isolated and confused by a similar diagnosis, can learn to look to their own future with similar positivity as they embark on their journey.

‘These Trains are Music’

The broadcast ends with a five minute recording of the boy playing electric guitar during a music therapy session with his mother. Another repetitive activity he enjoys and uses to self-regulate. The boy’s guitar playing also emulates the subway and train sounds. He uses modulation and reverb to create the ambient guitar drone which is reminiscent of the subway’s soundscape and the speed and repetition of the subway trains. This gives the listener further insight into the inner world the boy loses himself in, while playing. The pitch, the repetitive abstract sounds, rhythmic patterns and sonic dissonance all attribute to soothing and self-regulating him. These instantaneously composed guitar soundscapes do not emanate from any train recorded, or any trains heard. The come from the boy and his mother, from their shared memories, feelings, emotions and their shared experiences.

The Glasgow Subway is currently undergoing a £288 million modernisation. These subway sounds were originally intended for a posterity broadcast, as the sights and sounds of the Glasgow Subway, as artist and subject see and hear them, will soon cease to be.