As an art critic, it must be an awkward assignment to memorialize the work of an artist who rejected memorials. Sound installation pioneer Max Neuhaus, who died in 2009, productively confronted the limits of artistic form throughout his long career, but at no moment was this challenge more powerful than in death. A recent book by the Dia Art Foundation, one of Neuhaus’s key patrons, engages just this paradox.
Neuhaus was among the first modern composers (if that title even applies) to work with sound in a deliberately non-musical idiom. Breaking from predecessors and contemporaries in the field of sonic art, Neuhaus was never interested in how to bring concrete sound into composition, let alone the concert hall. To whatever extent possible, his work was publicly situated – on streets or in subway stations, for example. His authorial presence was supposed to be as invisible as his art. The idea was to engage audiences without ever signaling to them that they’d entered an artistic space. Working in the mid- to late-20th century, Neuhaus shared a number of insights and goals with contemporary Modernists in the visual arts, but his use of sound as a primary material gave his work a distinct status.
Neuhaus’s most famous piece is Times Square, an ambient drone that issues from beneath a grate on 7th Avenue between 45th and 46th streets in Manhattan:
Times Square is unmarked, and essentially unrecognizable as art. Passersby notice it all the time, and may even stop to listen, but generally in the assumption that the sound, however unusual, has something to do with the subway or Con Ed. In this respect, it can induce a kind of self-discovery for those who come upon it. Neuhaus hoped that such moments would be a gateway to more attuned listening down the line.
This piece, like much of Neuhaus’s output, was initially temporary. The Dia Art Foundation, however, has funded its continued installment since 2002. The quasi-permanence of Times Square, its objecthood, stands in ironic contrast to its intention – to project an artistic intervention without, at least as far as the listener realizes, marking itself off from the rest of the world.
The individual contributors to Max Neuhaus: Times Square, Time Piece Beacon (namely: Lynne Cooke, Alex Potts, Branden Joseph, Peter Pakesch and Ulrich Loock, Liz Kotz, and Christopher Cox) seem not to have read each others’ essays – their discussions are at times redundant – but this is actually a good thing. Perspectives shoot off like branches, parallel in some places, jutting sharply in others. The same quotes and chestnuts about Neuhaus are deployed repeatedly, but each interpretive treatment has its own gloss.
The question most consistently addressed in the catalogue is that of the migration from time to space. Neuhaus, by rejecting music, was also rejecting the proscribed duration of artwork. Rather than asking an audience to sit still and listen for a particular span of time, he wanted to alter the mood or character of public environments – of spaces. Alex Potts quotes Neuhaus: “Traditionally composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time.”
This concept seems to have been initiated as a means of transformation, in which sound would decorate an already-installed architecture and make it feel different, to one where sound was itself treated as an autonomous spatial reality. This distinction is critical, recognizing as it does that sound is a material form rather than an ethereal engima. Sound, like any other space (including conventional architecture), requires both labor and maintenance.
Nevertheless, there was a register to Neuhaus’s politics that rejected the temporal structures of a capitalist society, and thereby its logic as well. So, even though his sound installations drew attention to the potent reality of sound, they also promoted a form of community predicated on phenomenological non-differentiation. Sound thus was used as a form of bodily envelopment that could envelop everyone at once. The question here, as Potts writes, was “How [ ] to make public art for a society that is intensely individualistic and whose public spaces, while shared by and open to a multitude of people, atomize the perceptual and mental world of those passing through it?” In other words, Neuhaus hoped people would hear his work as part of a massive flow of time rather than as a single, discrete signal. The last essay in the catalog, Christopher Cox’s Installing Duration, situates Neuhaus’s philosophy within broader mid-century debates about the nature of time – though politically radical in some sense, he was mostly in the mainstream among artists.
On a practical level, Neuhaus’s ethos of how to manage urban space was laid out most clearly in an Op-Ed published in the New York Times in 1974. In brief, aesthetics, joy, and discovery should trump the rationalization of space. The piece is reprinted in its entirety here:
“BANG, BOOooom; ThumP, EEEK, tinkle” by Max Neuhaus
The popular concept of ‘noise pollution’ is a dangerously misleading one. In reality, dangers to hearing do exist in prolonged, excessively loud sound levels. However, the residue of the idea that has ended up in the mind of the public because of misleading publicity is that sound in general is harmful to people.
A brief examination of a pamphlet Noise Makes You Sick published by the Department of Air Resources of the city’s Environmental Protection Agency is typical of the literature and clearly illustrates the problem.
The first sentence, ‘Sound is instantly transmitted from your ears to your brain and then to your nerves, glands and organs’, is of course literally true. Actually the reaction doesn’t normally go as far as the glands and internal organs.
However, we are left with the impression that we have absolutely no defense against unwanted sound. This is untrue. The body has automatic reflex barriers, both physical and psychological, to deal with sounds it does not wish to react to.
The pamphlet goes on, ‘Any loud or unexpected sounds put your body on alert’. This is true with a newborn child or in primitive societies, both of which need this reaction to survive. But certainly the modern urban dweller is not put into a state of fright (except of course when there is actual danger) very often by the sounds around him.
A human being conditions himself fairly quickly to what is ‘loud or unexpected’ in his particular environment.
Once having ‘established’ the impression that we are constantly in a state of ‘fright’, though, the brochure goes on to extrapolate in august pseudo-medical terms: ‘Adrenalin, an energy-producing hormone, is released into your blood stream. Your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure rises. Sudden spasms occur in your stomach and intestines’. This finally gives the impression that every honking horn brings us a little bit closer to death.
The law defines noise as ‘any unwanted sound’. Surely several hundred years of musical history can be of value. At the very least they can show us that our response to sound is subjective, that no sound is intrinsically bad. How we hear it depends a great deal on how we have been conditioned to hear it.
Through extreme exaggeration of the effects of sound on the human mind and body, this propaganda has so frightened people that it has created ‘noise’ in many places where there was none before and in effect robbed us of the ability to listen to our environment.
Admittedly it may be necessary to oversimplify an idea to bring enough public pressure to bear on the producers of ear-damaging sounds in our environment to stop this victimization of the public. This degree of misrepresentation is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible and ultimately negative.
This present concept of noise pollution condemns all sounds by leaving, in the public mind, the impression that sound itself is physiologically and psychologically harmful.
It is this exaggerated and oversimplified concept that is doing most of the damage, not sound, damage that can and should be rectified by curtailing misleading propaganda and showing people other ways to listen to their surroundings.
Obviously we need to be able to rest from sound just as we do from visual stimulation; we need aural as well as visual privacy. But silencing our public environment is the acoustic equivalent of painting it black. Certainly just as our eyes are for seeing, our ears are for hearing.
Max Neuhaus is a composer
New York Times Op-Ed by Max Neuhaus, December 6, 1974
Undoubtedly, the most difficult claim here is that anti-noise legislation “has created ‘noise’ in many places where there was none before,” that the problem of noise is a consequence of a particular political reality that refuses listening as an art form. Neuhaus, tellingly, retreats from pure relativism, but remains adamant: we benefit by being receptive, and suffer by being too defensive.
Such a celebration of listening, because it locates artistic agency not in singular geniuses but in everyone, leads logically to the kind of anti-elitist stance that Neuhaus ultimately took. Thus, despite his explicit rejection of capitalism, Neuhaus was actually a proponent of installations and even mass-market gadgets that could bring avant-garde sonic experiences to the common man. Branden Joseph’s essay, An Implication of an Implication, discusses a couple of these fascinating ideas. One was a “silent alarm clock” that slowly, almost imperceptibly, increased in volume; the after-image caused by the cessation of sound would be the effect that woke its user, rather than the typical series of jarring beeps.
Another, called “Max-Feed,” was a machine that users could place next to their stereos, causing a wall of feedback noise.
These devices, though fascinating, were arguably the weakest ideas of Neuhaus’s career. They were attempts to objectify and lend semi-permanence to sound installation. On the contrary, the strength of Times Square is precisely its resistance to objecthood. That piece appeals to listeners without revealing itself as emanating from anywhere – and indeed, maybe it doesn’t. The fact that this catalog doesn’t even attempt to contain the artwork that is its main focus is really the highest compliment to an artist who, at his best and for all the right reasons, didn’t want to be pinned down.