MAX NEUHAUS: TIMES SQUARE
May 30, 2002
"The important idea about this kind of work of mine is that it's not music," says American sound artist Max Neuhaus, standing atop a grate covering his latest installation at a Times Square pedestrian island in New York City. Hearing the mellifluous drone floating upward in a ghostly chime-like ambience from an enclosed underground vault, that it's "not music" seems a bit counterintuitive, so he explains: "It doesn't exist in time. I've taken sound out of time and made it into an entity."
'Times Square,' as the piece is simply titled, runs 24 hours a day, seven days week, so theoretically it doesn't begin or end. He describes it as a "place work," meaning that its origin, in fact its reason for being, stems entirely from where it is. "Place is what I make the work out of. I work by ear in the place itself," he says, describing his creative process.
Sketch of Times Square by Max Neuhaus
Times Square' first went up in 1977 and ran virtually continuously until 1992, when Neuhaus left New York for Europe, where he does most of his work these days (he lives in Italy). The piece was powered electronically and required monitoring to make sure it was running properly. When he couldn't be there to monitor it himself anymore, he decided it had run its course.
But it was remembered, and, it seems, missed. In an act of cooperation among the Times Square Business Improvement District, Metropolitan Transit Authority, and New York's Dia Center for the Arts, spearheaded by art gallery owner Christine Burgin, the piece reemerged on May 22. This time the plan is to keep it running, producing decades, perhaps centuries of subterranean sound in Times Square. A built-in digital monitoring system designed by the audio company that also handles Carnegie Hall, calls in once a day to play its sound, indicating that either all is well or that something needs to be fixed.
Neuhaus embraces the serendipity-factor. "I never do a piece where I'm not sure that 50 percent of the people who come across it will walk right through it without hearing it," says a ruddy-faced Neuhaus, donning a black felt hat with a gray-and-white feather tucked in the side. "And that means it's available but without imposition, that people find it when they're ready to find it, and by making it anonymous, it means that they claim it as their own—as they should."
It's why, he says, he chose Times Square: "It is the epitome of the public place." Roughly 30 million tourists pass through each year.
This desire to create sound for the general population, to take it out of the confines of the concert hall, is what drove him to leave music. As a teenager his goal was to be the "best drummer in the world." By his 20's he was a virtuoso solo percussionist with a busy touring career, but by the time was 30, he'd traded the title "musician" for "artist," and now in his 60's, says, "I feel like a kind of blue collar migrant worker. Artists are really high class lettuce pickers."
(In another act of proletarian art, during the late 1980s, he managed to implement new siren sounds in a number of Oakland, California police cars. Logically, sounds varied based on the level of emergency. The New York City Police Department showed some interest, and Neuhaus patented it—"the first sound ever patented," he says—but it never went any further.)
Times Square' is currently Neuhaus' only U.S.-based installation, but another is in the works. Unlike his "place works," this will be a "moment work," one which shakes up the concept of ringing church bells. Instead of sound appearing on the hour, it will disappear. The idea is that the sound will arrive so gradually, that it will go unnoticed; it will then disappear abruptly, strikingly. He hopes to do this first at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the massive unfinished New York City Episcopal church, another prime tourist destination) and continue to implement it in the surrounding neighborhoods.
People think seeing is everything. They say, 'Seeing is believing,' but in fact the eye and ear are in constant dialogue," says Neuhaus. "Sound is the other half of life."
Photo credit: Courtesy Electronic Music Foundation. Photo by Joel Chadabe.