PRINT May 2009


Max Neuhaus

BY THE TIME OF HIS DEATH on February 3, Max Neuhaus was widely regarded as a, if not the, founding father of “sound art.” Neuhaus never liked the term, which came into circulation decades after he began using sound as a medium in site-specific installations. Asked in 2000 to provide an elder statesman’s endorsement of a self-described “sound art” exhibition, Neuhaus responded with an essay deriding the term. “It’s as if perfectly capable curators in the visual arts suddenly lose their equilibrium at the mention of the word sound,” he wrote. “These same people who would all ridicule a new art form called, say, ‘Steel Art’ which was composed of steel sculpture combined with steel guitar music along with anything else with steel in it, somehow have no trouble at all swallowing ‘Sound Art.’”

Even so, Neuhaus benefited tremendously from the wave of interest in sound that washed over the art world in the late 1990s and established “sound art” as an institutionally sanctioned term and form. Artists, critics, and curators eager to construct a genealogy of the practice quickly discovered Neuhaus’s pioneering work of the late ’60s and the abiding relevance of his later projects. At no time in his life was Neuhaus more active or sought after—particularly in the United States—than in his last decade, during which he received major commissions from Dia:Beacon in upstate New York and the Menil Collection in Houston, and reinstated his most famous installation, Times Square, 1977, which colored a patch of New York’s busiest district with a rich, ringing drone that subtly altered the sonic environment, rendering aesthetic the area’s relentless hubbub.

Despite this attention, Neuhaus’s reputation as a sound artist confined him to a tiny niche of the art world and barred him from wider recognition. For his own part, Neuhaus placed his work within a broader lineage, that of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their offshoots. He felt a fundamental kinship with artists such as Michael Asher, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson, who used the physical materials of their art not to produce portable objects but to articulate space and the specificity of site. Neuhaus’s innovation was to do this with an invisible and insubstantial but no less powerfully physical material: sound. “Our perception of space,” he liked to say, “depends as much on what we hear as on what we see.” And so Neuhaus took it upon himself to explore the role of sound in shaping space and defining place, coining the term sound installation to describe his practice. This sort of work, Neuhaus routinely insisted, has nothing to do with music. “In music the sound is the work,” he noted, while “in what I do the sound is the means of making the work, the means of transforming space into place.”

This dissociation of sound installation from music was significant, not least because Neuhaus had himself been a celebrated musician and, indeed, something of a prodigy. Having decided at age fourteen to become “the best drummer in the world,” Neuhaus began commuting from the suburbs of New York City to West Fifty-fourth Street to take lessons with his idol, the jazz great Gene Krupa. This love for jazz soon led him to the Manhattan School of Music, where he encountered the work of John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and other American experimental composers who had developed substantial bodies of work for percussion, and for whom composing for percussion was a means of extending music beyond pitch and harmony. While still in his teens, Neuhaus found himself working with members of the New York School—Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff—whose graphic scores and open forms effectively invited performers to become co-creators of their work. For his graduation recital, he decided to perform Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus, 1959, an extraordinarily difficult composition for twenty-one percussion instruments that requires the soloist to follow an idiosyncratic circular score that leaves key decisions to the performer. He traveled to Germany to meet with Stockhausen, who, intrigued by the young percussionist’s ideas about how to realize the piece, invited Neuhaus to join him on his first tour of the United States.

Neuhaus soon found himself straddling the two opposing camps of postwar music: the pedigreed European avant-garde led by Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez and the scrappy American experimentalism associated with Cage. Neuhaus toured with Stockhausen and Boulez while simultaneously devising strategies to perform solo percussion works by Cage, Brown, and Feldman. In 1963, experimenting with Cage’s Fontana Mix, 1958, a kit of graphic elements to be combined by the performer, Neuhaus discovered that acoustic feedback could be used as a musical device. He placed contact microphones on an array of percussion instruments facing loudspeakers and, using Cage’s score as a guide, played with the volume of the various channels, producing feedback that rattled the instruments and generated howling loops of noise. The resulting feedback-drenched rendering of the Cage piece not only defined what would become the signature sound of the 1960s; it also inaugurated the genre of “live electronic music,” an improvisational practice that challenged the institution-bound and capital-intensive protocols of the electronic music establishment.

Neuhaus performed Fontana Mix and his now expansive repertoire throughout the US and Europe during the ’60s, making several stops at Carnegie Hall. In 1968, he committed his repertoire to vinyl in a recording for “Music of Our Time” on Columbia Masterworks, a short-lived but historically significant series run by fellow experimentalist David Behrman. (In a delightful evocation of the time, the cover features a shaggy, bare-chested Neuhaus—part Neanderthal, part cherub—surrounded by drums, cymbals, amplifiers, and makeshift electronic synthesizers.) Satisfied that his output had been duly registered, Neuhaus bade farewell to performance and, indeed, to music.

Years of touring had made Neuhaus uneasy with the “onus of entertainment” that plagued musical performance; he envied the visual arts their freedom from this burden. He had also become disenchanted with the temporal framework of musical composition and performance—the presentation, at specified times, of ephemeral works with beginnings, middles, and ends—and admired the relative durability of visual art, which allowed viewers to approach it “in their own time.” A decade earlier, Cage had expressed a similar lack of interest in musical “time-objects” and had instead endorsed a conception of music as “a process essentially purposeless” and “a process the beginning and ending of which are irrelevant to its nature.” Neuhaus’s first forays into nonmusical sound work offered one possible response to this Cagean imperative and neatly figured his own subsequent exit from the world of music. In the mid-’60s, he began inviting friends and acquaintances to gather at a musical venue, stamped their hands with the word listen, and promptly led them outside on a tour of local power plants, highway underpasses, and neighborhoods that were to be experienced aesthetically as sound environments. At the same time, he was experimenting with technological means for the delivery of sound. Public Supply, 1966, used New York radio station WBAI’s studio as a kind of proto-Internet to stage a massive participatory sound clash, inviting listeners to call in to the station with their sonic contributions—chatter, yelps, saxophone squonks, power tool noises, car honks, television dialogue, etc.—which Neuhaus mixed live on the air. His first genuine sound installation, Drive In Music, 1967, installed a year later along a parkway leading to Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, utilized a series of short-range radio transmitters to create overlapping auditory fields that could be accessed only by the radios of passing cars.

The influence of Cage and the tradition of experimental music is strongly felt in these works, but they also begin to reveal Neuhaus’s affinity with the installation and expanded-field practices that emerged in the ’60s as a challenge to the traditional media and venues of the visual arts. Identifying the musical association of sound with time, Neuhaus saw his sound installations as operating, instead, in the traditional domain of sculpture, namely in space, but also as extending beyond the neutral space of sculpture to engage the complexities of site or what Neuhaus preferred to call “place.” Concerned, too, that his work be public, encountered in the course of everyday life, Neuhaus began installing unmarked sound pieces in stairwells, subway stations, swimming pools, and elevators, filling them with lush drones, phased clicks, or other sounds that were at once unobtrusive and subtly transformative. In 1973, he happened upon a subway vent on a pedestrian island in New York’s Times Square and was struck by a desire to use the cavernous space as the resonant chamber for a sound work. Four years of arduous negotiation with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Con Edison ensued until Neuhaus finally received permission to climb down into the vent shaft and install a loudspeaker and some homemade electronic sound generators that he jerry-rigged to the city’s lighting grid. Neuhaus built the sound by ear, listening carefully to the sonic environment, layering frequencies and timbres the way a painter layers color, and shaping mass like a sculptor working with invisible material. As in all of Neuhaus’s installations, the sound was to be, he liked to say, “almost plausible” in the context and yet also a bit out of place, a slight dislocation of the aural topography. The result was a complex drone that, as Neuhaus described it, resembled “the after ring of large bells,” a sound that summoned the restless clamor of its environs and bathed it in a consistent sonic hue. Launched in September 1977, the piece defined an aural field that remained in place twenty-four hours a day for years to come.

Times Square came to serve as the model or prototype for a series of what Neuhaus called “place works,” installations in which site was articulated by a precisely tuned drone. In the early ’80s, he began a related but importantly different group of works that he called “moment works,” in which the continuous drone is replaced by the emergence, at regular intervals, of a slow, steady crescendo that reaches a peak and then abruptly stops. The one installed at Dia:Beacon in 2006, for example, begins five minutes before each hour, projected from some invisible source into the museum’s courtyard. Slowly, a steady but variegated drone distinguishes itself from the ambient flux, becoming audible to all but the most inattentive passersby. At the top of the hour, it promptly shuts off, producing a set of marked psychoacoustic effects: Ambient sound is effectively amplified while the drone itself still lingers in the memory, from which it gradually recedes in a pattern symmetrical with its emergence.

Neuhaus produced “place works” and “moment works” all over Europe, where he moved in the early ’90s, and where he was considerably better known and better supported than in the United States. Only with the rise to prominence of sound art in that decade did he begin receiving new commissions in his native country. In 2000, New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center mounted a retrospective of the spare, elegant pencil drawings that Neuhaus produced as a way of documenting his site-bound work. The same year, gallerist Christine Burgin began working with Neuhaus, the Times Square Alliance, and other parties to revive Times Square, which the artist had shut off in 1992 due to his inability to maintain it from abroad. Neuhaus completely rebuilt the piece, and it was launched again in 2002, thanks in part to the intervention of New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who fondly remembered passing through the piece late at night after leaving the newspaper’s headquarters on West Forty-third Street. The artist donated the piece to the Dia Art Foundation, which went on to commission him to produce the work mentioned above for its new galleries in Beacon. Another retrospective of the artist’s drawings was held last summer at the Menil Collection, which simultaneously unveiled a new work by Neuhaus—a small sliver of sound audible twenty feet from the museum’s entrance.

Sound is ephemeral material. Yet, via “permanent” installations filled with continuous drones, Neuhaus attempted to stretch it indefinitely into the future. He often contrasted the transience and time-boundedness of music with the spatiality and timelessness of his sound installations. In 2002, for example, commenting on the newly reactivated Times Square, he told a reporter: “The important idea about this kind of work is that it’s not music. It doesn’t exist in time. I’ve taken sound out of time and made it into an entity.” Of course, nothing is timeless, least of all sound, which is temporal or nothing at all. Neuhaus meant rather to give a sense of the ineluctable duration of both sound and time, their incessant passage and persistence. He wished to grant to sound the relative permanence of a classic painting, sculpture, or literary text, to be able to say that, though life is short, sound is long. Times Square and the handful of other “permanent” works by Neuhaus have indeed survived their creator and will go on indefinitely testifying to the durability not only of sound but also of an extraordinary life’s work.

Christoph Cox is a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA.