Tom Johnson

 

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I sometimes think that no piece of music in and of itself means very much. The real meaning has to do with where you put it. Attach a high price tag and display it in a posh concert hall and it means one thing. Feed it into a car radio and it means quite another thing. Home stereos, discotheques, elevators, and city sidewalks all have their own connotations; and if you tell me that most of these contexts have arisen as a means of accommodating various types of music, I can reply, with equal validity, that most music is written as a means of accommodating specific outlets.

Most composers and performers are aware of all this, I think, but they are generally content to work within the confines of established contexts. Max Neuhaus is not, and for about ten years now he has been creating not only new pieces of music, but new situations to put them in as well. Some readers will probably recall Neuhaus's Water Whistle, an underwater piece which he has presented in a number of swimming pools around the country. Thousands of pedestrians have encountered Walkthrough, a weather-controlled electronic installation which bleeped continuously for about a year and a half in the arcade of the MTA station at J Street/Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Many have heard Public Supply, a radio piece in which listeners telephone in their own music, which Neuhaus then distorts, and mixes, and sends out over the air. Thinking back about my own experiences with Neuhaus works, I generally recall the situations more vividly than the sounds; but the pieces seem meaningful and significant in any case.

Neuhaus seems to be working continuously on new circuitry for new projects, though few of them have actually been presented in New York the past couple of seasons. That is primarily because his projects generally require lots of expensive equipment and a great deal of cooperation from guardians of public facilities. This season, however, he will be more in evidence. He has a large project for National Public Radio scheduled for January 2. This is Radio Net, for which people from five major cities will be able to telephone in whistling sounds, which will then be manipulated at a central point via Neuhaus circuitry, mixed together, and fed out over the network as a two-hour audience-participation composition. He also has his eye on a ventilation shaft on one of the islands in Times Square, where he hopes to obtain permission to install continuous electronic sounds to be heard by passers-by. Meanwhile, on November 19-21, he installed a new work called Round on lower Broadway.

Round, sponsored by Creative Time, Inc., was installed in a large, oval area in the ornate rotunda of the U.S. Custom House. An oval ring of 16 face-up loudspeakers was placed on the carpeted floor, with a smaller ring of 16 more loudspeakers inside it. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, listeners were sitting and lying casually around the area; and I decided to sit down between a couple of loudspeakers in the outer ring. It was immediately apparent that sustained electronic sounds were moving around the space; and I soon realized that whatever faded in on the loudspeaker at my right would pass on to the loudspeaker on my left a beat later, and from there to the other 14 speakers of the outer circle. Every eight beats a new sonority would pass by me, and the music just kept rotating.

The sound color itself was nothing remarkable as present-day electronics go, and the basic pitches were all overtones of one fundamental low pitch. Often a high, insistent, seventh overtone would dominate; and sometimes I would be more aware of higher overtones. Sometimes the deep fundamental would swell, but it didn't seem to move around the way the higher tones did, and would sometimes seem to rise around the whole room.

The balance fluctuated continuously, and I found it impossible to predict what would happen next. All I could be sure of was that once every eight beats some version of the sound would pass by my particular point in the space, and sometimes inklings of signals would go by during the other seven beats as well. I moved in toward the inner circle of loudspeakers and found that the same thing was going on there. For perhaps twenty minutes I found the situation quite engrossing, and looking up at the ornate oval ceiling above me I was pleased by the sensitivity with which Neuhaus had related his sound installation to the architectural shape of the space.

After listening to Round for a while, I decided to try to track down Neuhaus and find out more about what makes the piece tick. He invited me into a keep-out area where the equipment was and cordially answered my questions. Unlike many Neuhaus pieces, I learned, this one does not depend on any sort of weather information, audience activities, or other extraneous input, but finds variations all by itself through the complex interaction of four basic signals. The strange behavior of the low fundamental tone occurs because two signals are out of phase with one another. As I understand it, the low tone becomes louder when the listener happens to be in one of those points of time and space where the two signals are in phase with one another, and fades out completely at time-space points where they are canceling one another out.

I was glad to learn these facts, and rearmed with this information I was ready to go back into the rotunda and appreciate the music all over again from a more educated perspective. Neuhaus, however, did not feel that the technological facts should affect the listener. That's why he had tucked the equipment away in an inaccessible corner and had provided no program notes. This led to an interesting discussion. Neuhaus claimed that analysis can ruin music, and that people should respond to Round purely on an intuitive, musical level. I insisted that questions about how things were made represented simple, desirable intellectual curiosity, and that people could appreciate the intricacy of what was going on and enjoy the music much more if they had some idea of what caused it. Of course we didn't resolve this age-old controversy, but we did reach a compromise as far as the immediate problem was concerned. I told him that if I wrote about Round I'd feel obliged to include some information about how it worked, but that I'd also put in something about how unimportant he felt such things were. Neuhaus thought that would be fair enough, and I'm still not sure who was conning whom.

But the essential thing is still the basic situations Neuhaus creates. In this case he makes use of a largely unused public space, finds a sensitive blend between new sounds and old architecture, and brings people together in a unique, informal situation. When he puts electronic sound installations on street corners, he politely confronts pedestrians with the opportunity to be more aware of the sounds around them. When he puts music in swimming pools, he gives us a whole new perspective on sound perception and the experience of being underwater. And when he presents Radio Net on January 2, he will be setting up a nationwide audience-participation piece, which strikes me as a most provocative way to start off a new year.

 

First published as "Creating the Context: Max Neuhaus ", The Village Voice, 6 December 1976