On Max Neuhaus: The Sound Installation In Times Square

by Thomas Brett

If you walk over the metal grating smack in the middle of the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th street where Broadway and 7th Avenue meet, slow down a little and listen closely to the space beneath your feet: you’ll notice a subtle shift in the soundscape around you.  There is a mysterious low-pitched humming drone that sounds like it could be some kind of industrial engine or maybe the sound of a didgeridoo player helplessly trapped below, but it’s neither of these things.  (Though for years I assumed it was a didge player with incredible lung power!)  The drone is actually a subterranean continuous sound art installation designed by the artist Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) in 1977.

Growing up in suburbs of Westchester, NY, Neuhaus studied jazz drumming with the great Gene Krupa (the flamboyant drummer featured on Benny Goodman’s song, “Sing, sing, sing”) and then in the late 1950s went on to earn bachelors and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School Of Music.  It was here that Neuhaus first encountered the music of American experimental composers including John Cage, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Morton Feldman who were writing adventurous pieces for percussion ensemble.  In the early 1960s, Neuhaus, who was touring as a percussionist with Pierre Boulez’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, became one of the first classical musicians to experiment with live feedback techniques using microphones and speakers.  In his performances of Cage’s piece Fontana Mix, Neuhaus would place microphones on his percussion instruments in front of loudspeakers and allow the resulting feedbacking sound to resonate the instruments and create a great sonic din probably not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s squealing electric guitar soundscapes.  It was the excitement of this kind of experimentation that led Neuhaus further and further way from traditional percussion music and into left-field sound work.

Eventually, Neuhaus took to heart Cage’s adage that everything in our listening environment can be considered music and began creating anonymous public sound works he called “sound installations” in the United States and Europe.  Many of these works consist of continuous sounds placed in particular locations that have neither beginnings nor ends—they just go on and on whether you notice them or not.  Neuhaus’s work in Times Square is called, fittingly, Times Square, though there is no sign around to tell you that.  The installation’s sound is actually generated by a machine that amplifies and enhances the natural resonances already present below ground but otherwise inaudible from above.  You can’t see the machinery making the sound, but that’s just as well, since Neuhaus intended the visual component to be all those who walk over the metal grating of the pedestrian island, as well as Times Square’s always proliferating giant billboards, hotels, shops and restaurants.   Times Square initially ran continuously from 1977 until 1992.  In 2002, the piece was resurrected and since that time has run twenty-four hours a day, every day.

I make a point of walking directly over Neuhaus’s sound installation most evenings to experience a fleeting 5-second experience of its basso continuo ambient drone.  Neuhaus’s work is somewhat odd in that once you notice it, it gets you thinking for a moment, but about nothing in particular.  It’s just one more voice blending in among the thousands of other sounds sounding in Times Square.  You hear and notice the drone for a few seconds, then just move on.

You can listen to Times Square here:

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