‘Max Neuhaus – Times Square, Time Piece Beacon’ [book review]

Max Neuhaus 'Times Square, Time Piece Beacon'Published by Dia Art Foundation,
New York, 2009

Lynne Cooke
Alex Potts
Branden W. Joseph
Peter Pakesch & Ulrich Loock
Liz Kotz
Christoph Cox

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) before reading this book, yet his name pop up in many articles and books on sound art. He seems to have been strongly present in Europe with sound installations in various towns, and on the 18 books and catalogs devoted to Neuhaus listed in the bibliography, 16 were published in European countries. Apparently these books are hard to come by nowadays, so this one is a welcomed introduction to an important work. This is arguably the most beautiful book on sound art I have ever read, with a perfect balance between art criticism and detailed descriptions, a wonderful layout and exquisite typesetting. It only lacks an index to lift it to reference book status.

Neuhaus appears rather liberal on matters of sound and noise, not surprisingly for someone who started organizing sound events in the 1960s with the LISTEN! Series, 1966-76 – these promenade tours without commentary consisted in walks to inaccessible industrial locations and noisy neighborhoods, including visiting a power plant or a freeway (Lynne Cooke, p29). As much as he was reluctant to be pigeonholed into categories, his attitude toward all sounds was un-patronizing, and he never ceased to let the sounds live their own life. Neuhaus is famously credited as the ‘founding father of sound art’ (Cooke, p23), though he rejected the term in a 2000 article (Cox, p118, note 21). To go beyond the contradiction, Christoph Cox cunningly dubs him ‘the founding father of sound installation’ (p129). It is the role of an artist, after all, to refuse categories or to create uncharted, new ones, even if art critics will always bring him back into the comfort zone of familiar categories, thus admitedly helping wider public recognition of a difficult artwork.

Branden W. Joseph notices how Neuhaus was concerned with muzak (a genre scorned by Cage and R. M. Schafer as well), which he regarded as a manipulative sound targeting a specific audience (p71), at odds with the freedom implied by Neuhaus’ own works, where the public is offered the possibility to notice the sound work or not, to choose the way they perceive it and add their own interpretation of it. As already said, Neuhaus rejected any hierarchization between sounds themselves. No discrimination between sounds implies no discrimination between people, and is a political stance in itself (pp63-4). In this regard, Joseph mentions connexions with left-field activists like Henry Flynt and Cornelius Cardew (p63). A response to a federal campaign on noise, Neuhaus’ famous 1974 NY Times editorial (read full article here) rejected the idea of good and bad noise, stating that, by linking noise pollution to urban sounds, public officials ‘in effect robbed us of the ability to listen to our environment . . . By arbitrarily condemning most man-made sounds as noise, [bureaucrats] were making noise where it never existed before’ (Cooke, p32).

As most American writers today, Liz Kotz misquotes John Cage for the definition of music as ‘organized sound’ (p95). The quote is actually from Edgar Varèse (see Wikipedia article) and, frankly, there’s no need to add to the already large list of borrowings in Cage’s oeuvre. When appreciating Neuhaus’ urban installation work as pioneering, it would be interesting to mention Arseni Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, 1922, using the entire city of Baku as sound stage – Neuhaus himself conceived a Sirens project in 1978 (see p58 & 135). Instead of that, writers in this book connect Neuhaus with contemporary Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre (Alex Potts, p46 and 48), also drawing parallels with Richard Serra (p41, note 11). One article mentions Keith Sonnier’s sound pieces of the 1960s as a comparison (Peter Pakesch & Ulrich Loock, p88) and Liz Kotz mentions Japanese Atsuko Tanaka (p98), both artists deserving further investigation. Kotz also compares David Tudor moving from contemporary music to electronics, and Neuhaus moving from contemporary music to sound art (pp100-101).

The book emphasizes the 2 sound installations Dia Art Foundation helped funding: the NY Times Square permanent sound piece installed in a subway ventilator shaft, and Time Piece Beacon, a permanent installation at Dia’s museum in Beacon, NY. The first belongs to what Neuhaus himself called his Place works, involving continuous sound without beginning or end ; the second is part of his Moment works, or Times Pieces according to several authors, ‘where a sound that blends with the aural texture of an environment suddenly draws attention to itself by coming to an end’ (Potts, p21). The Place works includes the 1974-77 Underwater Music concerts and Times Square, 1977, a sound installation where ‘rich metallic drones’ (Cox, p124) subtly alter the noisy Times Square environment ; the Moment works includes the Silent Alarm Clock, the Max-Feed, the Time Piece Bern, Graz, DiaBeacon, Sommeln-Pulheim, etc, that is, outdoor sound installations where ‘a regular temporal interval is marked by a slow sonic crescendo that abruptly ceases, leaving what Neuhaus describes as an afterimage’ (Cox, p126). After noting how classical European music is time-bound, Cox praises Neuhaus’ Time Pieces as dealing with a different relationship with time, yet these sound installations more or less work as hourly clocks, he says (‘it marks time’, p128). The difference is that the time measured by Neuhaus in his Time Pieces is the time of ‘the community’s collective rhythms’ (Cox, p126-7). For Neuhaus, music is sound in time, while sound art is time in space (Joseph, p67).

The Silent Alarm Clock, 1979

The Silent Alarm Clock (pictured above) belongs to the Time Pieces category. This prototype was build by Neuhaus in 1979 to awake the sleeper with silence. It’s a device emitting a continuous tone slowly increasing in volume until it suddenly stops at the appointed time, thus awaking the sleeper. It’s not the subtle sound that actually awakes, but its disappearing. The other Time Pieces/Moment works are derived from this concept, i.e. you notice their sound when it disappears.

Water Whistle event, 1974

The various Water Whistle events organized in swimming pools between 1971 and 77 (part of the Underwater Music concerts) used submerged plastic hoses to transmit high-pitch tonalities to swimmers (see picture above). It’s an early example of a Place Piece. An interesting definition of the Place Pieces is given by Alex Potts when he qualifies Neuhaus’s work as ‘staging an aesthetic experience’ (p46). The key point is that Neuhaus’ work doesn’t intrude or alter the surrounding space, as it ‘does not strive to transform the environment’ (p54) but rather ‘alter one’s perception of the space’ (p54). Time Pieces let ‘the listener place [the elements of a sound composition] in his own time’ (Joseph, p67), and as such, are a radical departure from European avantgarde music. This input from visitors and passersby should not be confused with interactivity, though, a trick Neuhaus opposed to. It would best be defined as araising public awareness to specific sonic properties. Though his sound installations require the same level of attention a work of art would to be fully perceived as a work of art (Potts, p50), Neuhaus’ sound pieces can even be ignored and the public has the possibility of bypassing the artwork completely (Joseph, p67). Which is what happened to me in 2008 when visiting New York for the first time: my hotel was located in Times Square and though I noticed the subway ventilating system made an unusual noise there, I wasn’t aware I was stepping on a Max Neuhaus’ masterpiece everytime I went to the subway station!

To Max Neuhaus’ official web presence

5 Responses to “‘Max Neuhaus – Times Square, Time Piece Beacon’ [book review]”

  1. 1 Scott January 7, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Hi. Need info on your new banner art. Who, what, etc.. It appears to be from the post impressionistic grotesquety era.

  2. 2 continuo January 7, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Definitely post impressionistic. Info in the ‘About’ section.

  3. 4 Phil January 15, 2010 at 12:57 am

    I looked around and finally found the book here:


  4. 5 Christophe Boutin January 16, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    For all fans of Max Neuhaus check this artist book at published onestar press in 2001.

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