New York

Max Neuhaus

The Customs House

Soft sounds in Max Neuhaus’ Round at the Customs House were running around the two ovals of speakers, one oval inside the other. After disentangling myself from the conversations of people lounging on the floor or leaning against the oval marble platform (at one time the transom over which imports were judged), I moved through the network of face-up speakers, trying to separate out their tones. A low tone was regularly making the rounds, with higher tones also whipping around, but seeming to fade in and out. From my ears’ evidence I couldn’t tell if columns of overtones were supporting and obliterating each other, or if the sound was being altered in some more circuitous fashion. The circuitry will be discussed later.

The rotunda where the music was taking place became, once I stopped trying to take the sounds apart, a place to relax in, without the constant attention and immobility most concerts require. The rotunda certainly lends itself to wandering: 135’ long, 85’ wide, and 48’ high, it was built in an age when money was available for things like marble in public buildings, and was painted by Stanley Marsh in a later age when money was available for the WPA. Marsh’s murals circling the rotunda’s dome depict the activities of Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, Verrazano, etc.

The paintings were brilliantly lit by six remarkable pillars of lights, each about 10 feet high. Distributed around inside the marble oval, their huge electric bulbs smoldered like braziers whenever cigarette smoke plumed into their beams from the knots of visitors below. Until the Customs House was retired a few years ago from government service, the pillars had been literally buried beneath piles of filing cabinets.

Neuhaus likes to put music in its appropriate place. In 1974 I got off at the Borough Hall stop in Brooklyn and was stopped short by a strange tweeting emitted by speakers high on the subway stop’s aboveground edifice. The sound didn’t share the conventions of public address system music, nor did it have quite the randomness (or pain) associated with broken loudspeakers. Only much later did a knowledgeable friend inform me I’d stumbled into Neuhaus’ Walkthrough. In a similar vein, Neuhaus hopes to gain permission (and funds) to generate sounds from a Times Square subway vent.

Much of his other work is more closely related to Round’s invitational quality. Bathers in swimming pools rigged with his Waterwhistle knew in advance that Neuhaus’ sounds would become audible to their underwater ears. People calling specific radio stations and whistling into the telephone receiver expect the sound, with thousands of others, to be nationally broadcast in Radio Net.

Round’s sphere of exploration involved four signals moving at different speeds through eight channels—four channels per ring. Each ring emitted identical sounds along the axis of any given four speakers on an (imaginary) line through the rings’ central axis. Put more simply, the effect was like a compass needle’s sweep across opposite orientations at once, the double reading becoming quadruple by two circles of markers. Of the four signals, the lowest took about three seconds to move from speaker to speaker, the highest about one second.

Unlike LaMonte Young’s scattering of sine waves throughout a space, the transformations of sound waves bumping into each other were too quick and many-layered to be penetrated by the ear and schematized if the listener so desired. Neuhaus determined the sounds’ pitch and speed around the speakers only after he set the equipment up in the rotunda: the final decisions were made according to the feel and resonance of the space, not by equations at home. In the human bump of public places—such as elevators, which Neuhaus is eager, though building managers generally aren’t, to work with—the tone of the place pushes in more aggressively on the music. Rounds’ space and sounds were a little lost on each other.

Barbara Baracks