Lecture at the University of Miami

      Excerpts from talk and question period


In 1973, the year I discovered the space in Times Square, I also passed through Paris and came across what was for me an amazing space - a tunnel 600 feet long with three moving sidewalks in it. Its ceiling is arched, an unbroken curve which stretches the whole length of that tunnel. It is an unusual space in the way it looks and feels.

I found the space exciting, although many Parisians detest it. It took me a while to figure out why. I believe it was deliberately designed without visual references to make it look shorter than it is - one long space with no way to establish its scale. Its architect may have thought that, by making it look shorter, people wouldn't mind it so much. In fact, he accomplished the opposite: by making it look shorter than it is, people keep expecting it to end before it does - in effect making it seem endless.

Over the last ten years I have endeavored to do work there, initiating meetings with the people who control that space and talking to them about the concepts of the work. Just this last week I've succeeded in negotiating the first phase of the work.

It will take a year to build and will be permanent. One of the most interesting things about the space for me is that it is a passageway with moving sidewalks running in both directions; 2,000 people, sometimes 3,000 people, pass through it in an hour. It is a space where people are in motion, people's ears are in motion, very much different from Times Square where people can stop, stand, look - here everyone's moving. There is a whole new set of things for me to work with once I know that someone's ears are in motion.

It is also, surprisingly, a very quiet space; few people talk in it. What happens, due to the custom of standing on the right on moving sidewalks, is that people who are together have to line up one behind another, making conversations difficult to the point where most people stop talking.

The Paris Metro has a tradition of street musicians which play throughout its very resonant tunnels. The two ends of this tunnel are favorite places for musicians to set up for several hours and work. The work will act as a transition between two possible sound spaces, as a passage between these two locations.

The process of making a work for me is a gradual one - going into the space, looking at it and learning about it, figuring out its mechanics and its acoustics, and then going in with a system which generates sound and beginning to outline, to illuminate, so to speak, the space with sound. It is very much different from working as a visual artist where you go to a site, look at what is there, photograph it, make drawings about it. One can't see acoustically what happens in the space until you illuminate it, so to speak, by putting sounds in it.


I know that there must be things which I have not been able to make clear. It is hard to know what point of departure to take with any given audience. So I would like to ask you now for any questions about any of the things I talked about, so that we might have a discussion.

Q. Are you concerned with the effect that your sounds have on people? Are you trying to surprise people?

A. I am not trying to create a surprise. I am concerned with affecting them. The works are not conceptual; they are experiential. I deal directly with how people perceive a space through sound. My focus is not on making sound works which are exhibited to people's ears, but on affecting the way they perceive a space by adjusting or shifting its sound.

Most of us think that what we think about a place is determined by what we see in it. And I think it is for most of us, consciously. But unconsciously there is a perception of a space which deals with how it sounds, what sounds are there, and how sound acts in it and on our sense of sound. We are such a visually oriented society now that we take this perception of space through our ears for granted, it's automatic; but a blind person can 'see' the shape of a room just by walking into it.

Q. Is your style of work identifiable?

A. It is different for each work. We are used to artists having styles; we are used to being able to say that a mature artist is identifiable by what his work looks or sounds like. In my case, because each work grows from the place where I make it, there is no style in that sense.

My idea about making works in public places is about making them accessible to people but not imposing them on people, making them findable for people. The works are usually very subtle, although if we put the sound of the work in Times Square in this room it would be very, very loud, but in its context of the street sounds of Times Square it can be walked through and not noticed.

The threshold of these pieces is a crucial factor. I try to find a point, a common point, where the works are at the threshold of being there and not there, allowing people to find them, not making them so obvious that they are forced to find them.

Q. In the Villa Celle work, does it alter the sounds that are presently there?

A. It alters the perception of them but not the sounds themselves. One of my starting premises with each work is the aural nature of the place - the sounds which are already there. In a wooded area, the most consistent sounds are insect sounds, locusts, crickets. They change with time of day and season.

My idea wasn't to make the same sound or to communicate with them, but to make a sound which related to those sounds so that it fit within that context. Not making sound which was a separate thing in that environment, but making a sound so integrated that it shifted and pulled people into hearing the existing sounds in a different way.

Q. When you started, what got you in this direction?

A. I began as a musician. I was a performer of percussion works, works for a solo performer. I did concerts with many large arrays of percussion instruments, a different array for each work. I was working in an area which dealt with sound timbre rather than rhythm and melody. And I began exploring electronics as a way of expanding the timbres I had to work with. It was a natural evolution.

Q. Are there any recordings of your sound works?

A. That is a question that I am surprised didn't come up sooner - I am standing here talking about something which is sound. In fact I don't record the sound installations, and there is a very good reason. They are about creating places. The sound is only a catalyst for a particular place; it is not the work. If one takes the place away, one only has the catalyst left. We think of all sound art as being capturable with the tape recorder. Some of it is, but mine isn't.

Q. Do you always use normal speakers?

A. Rarely. The speaker in the work at the Museum of Modern Art was a very large subsonic horn. Part of the process of making a work is deciding on how I will apply sound to the space. Often I have to invent something.

Q. Could you tell us what you meant when you said there are more things for you to work with when you know people's ears are in motion?

A. Well, my thinking about that piece is still in a sketch phase, thinking about what kinds of things could happen in it with people moving.

One example: it takes some time for sound to move; it takes about half a second for sound at one end of this tunnel to reach the other end. If I put sound sources that had different sounds at either end of this tunnel, as a listener started at one end, he would hear the closest sound source first and the far source half a second later. When he reached the middle of the tunnel he would hear them both simultaneously; they would become vertical. As he passed the middle he would begin to hear the inverse. That is something I could begin to build a work with.

Another area that I could explore in depth is to move sounds through the space - sounds which move at the same speed, which move a little faster, which move a little slower, which move in an opposite direction.

It is very much like any other artist working with any other medium. One tries things. In my case because the works are large and involve public spaces, that trying process takes a long time and involves planning. It is trying to set up the same situation that a painter sets up in his studio of doing something, seeing how it looks, adjusting it gradually, focusing more and more until you realize the work is done.

Q. Isn't there a strong reaction against sound itself?

A. Yes. The Environmental Protection Agency in New York has an area called the Department of Air Resources. They are so inefficient in cleaning up the breathable part of the air, that they have to do something else to show people they are busy, so they run around and tell people that it is bad to hear.

The concept of noise pollution, which has been foisted on us by those agencies, is oversimplified and is robbing us of a very rich, sensual resource in our environment, i. e. hearing. This concept has convinced us that every sound we hear deafens us; that's the implication. In fact, most of our sound environment doesn't damage our ears at all, even when it is very loud.

I feel a duty to try and counter that propaganda. In 1974 I wrote an editorial in the New York Times condemning the New York City Department of Air Resources. We have been at odds ever since.

Q. Have you ever gone and stationed yourself around your works to check people's reactions?

A. I thought about that when I did Times Square, and it seemed to me that it was voyeuristic. Maybe that is too strong a word to use.

Yes, I could go and observe people. But I know what the work is, I know what it can do, otherwise I wouldn't be a very good artist. The direct knowledge I have about people's reaction to it, I like to keep as an accident. People finding it for themselves and knowing about it for a number of years and then finally running into someone who knows it is a work of mine, and they write me a letter or a postcard.

Recently I was up there because someone was making a TV documentary on my work and filming. And an amazing thing happened. As they were shooting the square for background, a woman walked up and started talking about this sound which she had found and how wonderful it was and asked them to listen to it, instead of just pointing their camera around the square. She went on for about fifteen minutes.

Q. What about interactive sound installations?

A. Yes, I know what you mean. I have never done that. I have thought about it quite a bit. I think things of that kind are public instruments rather than artworks. Usually what happens is that the person with the strongest ego makes the most noise. But culture bureaucrats love the idea; it fits in with their idea that art should be fun.

The ideas that I am involved with are contrary to that - giving each person the possibility to make a work for himself, but for himself only. For instance, by making a work that has a topography, one can move through that topography at one's own pace, stop where one wants to. One has the freedom to form an experience of the work for oneself but not impose it on anyone else.

Q. Where does the money come from?

A. It depends on the situation. In the case of the Metro project, a third of it will come from the Metro Authority itself with a third from the Ministry of Culture and a third from private sources. In the case of a museum, it comes from the museum and the patrons that they can find.

Q. In the case of the Paris Metro project, do you go to the state and say, I saw this place and I want to do this?

A. Essentially yes. But it is a dilemma; here I am walking in and saying, I am an artist, I want you to commission me to do a work. It sounds strange within the context of the way our society realizes works of artists. The artist is supposed to sit in his studio by the telephone waiting for it to ring.

That system, in fact, doesn't always work very well. Usually by the time the telephone rings, someone is calling you about a work which you did fifteen or twenty years ago for a place which is not the same place where you did the other work.

I find the most honest thing to do is to find sites and propose works. By not raising the money myself but going and presenting an idea and asking the place to raise the money, I put the decision in their hands. It is creating a situation which wouldn't happen by itself. No one ever would have commissioned me to do a work in a hole in the ground in Times Square. I had to have the idea. I had to annoy the Transit Authority to the point where they realized that the only way to get rid of me was to let me make this strange thing in the middle of Times Square.

The fact that I work with sound makes the situation more complex. Our sense of the monetary value of art sits firmly on the material instincts of size and weight. The most material thing in my work is air; it's invisible and weighs practically nothing. This in itself presents some problems in convincing people that there are costs involved in making a sound work - manpower, electronic systems but, most of all in my case, time.

Q. What kind of music do you listen to?

A. I don't have a stereo; I don't have a record player. I sometimes listen to popular music on the radio as a way of keeping current with the sound vocabulary that the rest of the world is speaking, but that is just a way of keeping my ear open.

Q. Have you ever worked with water sounds?

A. Yes. There was period from '71 until about '75, when I did many works in water. In one sense they were sound installations; but because they are in water, such a different medium than air, I think of them as another area. They were done in swimming pools. The sounds were made by using water running through small whistles which made pitches in the water. I set up systems of hoses and plugged it into the water system.

People heard the work, which was only underwater, by going in the water. The easiest way to listen was to float on your back with your ears under and your nose and mouth out. It was my approach to dealing with people who thought they didn't like culture. They sounded like so much fun; few people suspected what I had in store for them.

Many of these works indeed started out as pool parties with people making a lot of noise and jumping in the pool. The noise didn't matter; the sounds in the air could never penetrate the water. As soon as you put your ears in the water, it was another world. The sounds were quite beautiful - rich continuous sonorous structures, gradually shifting in three dimensions. The water was at body temperature. One by one people would disappear from the party until fairly soon everybody was on their backs in the water literally swimming in it.

I did seventeen of those works. In fact, one here in Florida, in Tampa, at the university. I think the largest pool I ever did was there.

So, yes, at one point I was extremely interested in underwater acoustics. I call it my water period.

Q. In your selection process, what part is experimental and what part is mathematical?

A. None is mathematical. I use computers; but instead of using a computer to simulate a situation, I use it to create it and to give myself the maximum number of possibilities to try within a space. If I use the idea I described about motion in the Metro tunnel as a point of departure, I will build a computer program that will let me try many of those kinds of things to see how they sound.

It is different with each piece. I go through a development of technique at the same time as I am learning about the site; for each work I build an electronic system. In the case of the Metro project, because it is a very big project, it will probably be rather elaborate.

I will start working with two engineers who build software which allows me to start from several points of departure and to explore areas within them by ear. They work with me during this phase, adjusting the software tools to new directions which I find while I'm working.

At the end of the exploratory phase, when I have defined the general area that I want to work in, they start developing software which allows me to do the composition process.

One of the main problems for me, because I make pieces in space that have topographies, that sound different in different places, is how can I set up a situation where I can control a complex set of sound sources from anywhere within the topography without running back and forth to a computer console, listening somewhere else, going to the computer console and typing something in, going back to the place where I want to hear it. Fine discrimination with sounds demands that you're able to change and compare differences quickly.

Several years ago I developed a system which was a portable terminal, made out of a small TV set which was battery-operated, with a light pen, which allowed me to walk anywhere within a space and control all the actions of the computer which was controlling a set of synthesizers. With a light pen I could draw any parameter that I wanted, any parameter of the synthesizers to execute.

I work as much as I can with my hand and my ears, setting up a situation where I can control sounds with my hand and listen to the results. It is hand, ear, brain, hand - a circle.

While building a work I am constantly switching between being an engineer to solve practical problems and an artist to solve aesthetic ones. The only way to make aesthetic judgments with sound is by ear. You cannot engineer a work of art; its parameters cannot be found by measuring.

Q. What actually would the synthesizers be doing?

A. Generating sounds. I am now in the process of designing the synthesis module that I will use for Paris. It will be digital, partly so that I can duplicate an image in each source to create the illusion of movement.

When I start a work, I start a process of research in technique. I am looking for the best means available at this time for this particular piece. If I had done this work ten years ago I would have a wholly different set of things to choose from. I don't think it changes the essence of the work; it just changes the means I have to realize it. It is like picking a set of paints.

Q. Are any of the pieces self-supporting in terms of their power sources?

A. No, Times Square is connected to the street lighting system, so when that goes, yes, it goes. There is no other way for me practically to power that piece. It only draws as much as a 50 watt light bulb, so it is not a matter of cost. I have made proposal for a Time Piece for Munich, though, which would be solar powered.

Q. Does that make a difference?

A. Well, it just makes it independent of the power company. It makes it more of an permanent entity.

I mean it when I say that these sound works can be permanent. Last week I met the maintenance person of the Metro. He maintains all the Metro stations south of the Seine. We were talking in broken English and my broken French, and after about five minutes he was trying to explain what he felt his function was in this project. Usually the maintenance man is one of the most difficult persons in a project because he thinks of the building or the space as his property in some way, and the artist is doing something which he doesn't quite understand to this 'possession' of his.

But this man was entirely different. After about five minutes he stopped and said, my job is to make sure this piece lasts a hundred years. And I said, great.

Q. What interests you in the issue of permanence?

A. If the sound in a work of mine is no longer there, the work ceases to exist. Nothing remains; one can't even be reminded of it with a photograph or recording. The experience that happens when sound engages mind in a work of mine can never occur again.

Q. We are talking about the equipment and not the sound?

A. No, the sound - the sound work.

Q. The sound is obvious.

A. You were really asking about an aesthetic issue about permanence.

Q. Not as an aesthetic issue so much as a conceptual issue.

A. It is no different than the destruction of any other work of art. Just because it is made of sound and we have this leftover idea that sound is temporary, doesn't change that.

Q. But is it permanent, like stone, I mean is it that kind of thing?

A. Times Square has existed for seven years without anything except dusting it occasionally. We have the means today to make a sound which lasts for ever; even if the equipment that generates it disintegrates, sound can be described so precisely now that it can always be rebuilt from its description.

But we have inherited some assumptions about sound which are no longer true. One is that sound is temporary. This is because in the past sound has always been associated with an event - thunder, a voice speaking. When the event is over, so is the sound.

My work turns that idea around. The sound is not a result of an event; the sound I make results in, manifests a place.

Q. Well, the stone, it has always been there, and you come upon it and obviously it has a different meaning for people now than it did then, but it is a permanent thing.

A. In my case an intangible work can be more permanent than the stone.

Q. I don't know if you are aware of it but you have an entire class of the University of Miami here tonight, because we are very interested in keeping up with and learning all we can about what is going on in the contemporary field of music. You have given a very interesting talk, and you showed us some interesting slides. I am very pleased to hear about all the things you do and all the work. And I would like very much to know what kind of music you make.

A. I have never written a piece for conventional instruments.

Q. I realize that. But we would like to know something of what the music is like. You have told us what you wanted to do. You have told us how you want it to affect us. But we don't know anything about what it sounds like.

A. Indeed. In my case it is not possible to play examples, to go to a piano and render something which sounds like it. It is not possible to move it from the place. All I can do is tell you where the places that they exist are and hope that when you go there you will go through them. And by talking about the work perhaps stimulate you to find them.



First published in Max Neuhaus, Sound Works, Volume I, Inscription (Ostfildern-Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994)