Sound as an invisible wave. Sound as sculpture. Composer and artist Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) alerted us to the vibrations of the world around us in unique ways. Abandoning his successful career as a solo percussionist in the last 1960s, having toured with Boulez and Stockhausen, packing away his one thousand kilos of instruments, he went on to pioneer ideas of ‘sound installations’ and interactive art forms with a social context. For him, space as sound was a primary force.
The Aural Equivalent of Christo
He entered my world when I was 19 years old when I happened to pick up a flyer at Riverside Studios, a cultural arts centre in London, where I would chance upon so many revelatory works. It was there that I first experienced Brian Eno’s visual light installations, saw Glenn Branca live (twice) for his first UK shows, the dancer Michael Clark, Anthony Gormley sculptures, and later wandered the streets aimlessly in a vain search for Samuel Beckett who was in town rehearsing for one of his plays. I’d seen rare images of him in the press and hoped that somehow his tall shadowy figure might just pass me in the street, if I hung around just long enough!
The quote on the flyer – ‘the most interesting, challenging environmental composer we have, the aural equivalent of Christo in the visual arts’ was more than enough to draw me in, and the time of his presentation, at 16.30, was simply ideal for a Sunday afternoon break. His illustrated talk was inspirational. I vividly remember him talking about his then current work, which was to create the sound for emergency vehicles in New York City. These were to be sounds that would be heard on every ambulance, fire engine and police car, but what was most important was that people understood their sonic language. He offered a picture of sitting in traffic in the city, hearing an emergency siren, but the crucial aspect of being able to identify its location, so you can move out of the way as necessary.
This siren project included a video monitor onto which sounds could literally be drawn on with an electric marker pen. Remember, this was 1984, and seeing this technology was absolutely mind-blowing! Long before the advent of the iPad and our almost casual relationship with new technology, the idea of being able to create sound is such a way was just extraordinarily futuristic. He explained that he would travel with the video monitor and synthesiser on test missions to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where sounds generated were played out in cars that drove around in circles.
At the time, the development of these sounds was still in progress. Some were variations on the more familiar wails and high/low pitches that we have all heard over time. Most significantly, Neuhaus was searching for a solution to using sound as location, in a kind of functional Doppler effect. Interestingly, he rebelled against a more scientific approach and remained within a more artistic field, relying more on intuition and experience than numbers and charts. I loved that he embraced this challenge more as a creative artist than as a scientist. That was extremely liberating for a free-thinking teenager sitting in the audience.
Dissolving the ego in the work
Over time, it’s interesting to consider how Neuhaus dissolved his ego within such work too. Such projects were not about the creator, they were about the experience. He would ultimately be anonymous to the general public. And it’s this aspect that very much resonates with me still today. Over the years I’ve personally been invited to design car horns in the USA (with such challenging questions as – ‘can you make a car horn respond differently to different situations, such as “I’m pregnant and need to go the hospital NOW,” or “You should not have stopped there, please move on immediately”), the sound for the Philips Wake-Up Light (2008), the Punkt DP O1 phone for British designer Jasper Morrison (2010), and most recently the Cisco Meraki (2017) telephone system around the globe, designing the ringtones and button sounds. I love the fact that no-one knows that this is my work, and that somehow, I’ve infiltrated the homes and lives of others without them ever realising it. Even you, the humbler reader, might well have experienced some of my works without ever being aware of it!
Walking away from the stage
Separating authorship from expression is a curious challenge and for many almost impossible. For many creatives today, the reward is almost entirely in the ego and the public acceptance. For me Neuhaus offered a revolutionary approach, breaking with traditional concepts of art to focus on the function itself. Consider that from 1961 to 1968 he was a percussionist, performing works with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, but essentially walked away from the stage to begin a series of sound walks across urban sites in 1966. He said:
I began my career as a musician working in a sphere of music where distinctions between composer and performer were beginning to disappear. I became interested in going further and moving into an area where composer and performer would not exist.
Such work means entrusting the ‘success’ of your output to the listener which is also a risky endeavour. Over the years Neuhaus created sound works in museums, metro stations, swimming pools, lifts, telephone systems and many other locations. Most interestingly, what you can’t find is documentation beyond photos of most of these works. In a similar way to the work of American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher, there is next to nothing you can actually hear, unless you experienced the work in real time.
Times Square aka ‘the hum’
Thankfully today, everyone can experience at least one Neuhaus work, in his Times Square installation. Frequently known as ‘the hum,’ it resembles a richly harmonic pulsating drone, and can be heard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for free. It was originally installed in 1977, removed in 1992, but reinstalled in 2002 and maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. I’ve been fortunate to witness this in action as have countless tourist without even an awareness of the fact!
There is no signage or marking to denote the piece as a work of art per Neuhaus’s request. It’s located on the the north side of a pedestrian plaza, created by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets. The sound itself emerges from a grate over a steam vent. Neuhaus was keen that the work would be overlooked until it was discovered by the listener in a serendipitous way.
There’s a comprehensive book on this installation published by Dia with documentation, photos and essays, which is one of the rare publications on Neuhaus’ work. I was also fortunate to pick up this three-volume set of books from Cantz when in Berlin in 1994, as you can see in the photo below, which features detailed plans and instructions for many of his works over the years and is an absolute treasure.
This is only an introduction to the work of Neuhaus, and I encourage you to spend some time exploring more online and following his lineage. For now, let’s leave Mr Neuhaus to close the conversation for today.
“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.”