Max Neuhaus has given us art works made of sound. These are installations of sounds, which, unlike music, do not unfold in time but are continuums. They give sound a shape, a form with invisibly defined boundaries. Neuhaus has effectively invented a new form of sculpture.
Neuhaus suggests that the culture of sound, that is, the cultivation of a highly differentiated sense of phonic dimensions, is still in its infancy. But not because we lack the capacity for it. On the contrary, phonic sophistication is essential for understanding spoken language and even for speaking itself. Yet, while man has been able to shape the visual world for millennia, it is only in the last century that we have been able to capture sound with a recording and only in the last decade with the arrival of digital sound technology that we have acquired the means truly to shape what we hear. This new means to form sound has released a flood of sonic processes. A new geography of sound initiated in the twentieth century by Edgar Varese and John Cage is now emerging. Neuhaus abandoned his place as the foremost percussionist of his generation in order to cultivate sound itself, beyond music, as his sole medium.
Among Neuhaus' early works, the one realized in 1977 for a pedestrian island, a triangle formed by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue between Forty-sixth and Forty-fifth Streets, in New York's Times Square, puts us in the midst of a rich and complex visual and aural environment where thousands of people are in motion, passing through the square. The work is invisible, an unmarked block of sound on the north end of the island. Its sonority, a harmonic sound texture resembling the after-ring of large bells, is improbable in its context and can easily be dismissed as an unusual mechanical sound from below ground. For those who acknowledge its implausibility, though, the island is transformed into a different space, separate, but including its surroundings. For them, in the absence of any indication that it has been deliberately made, the work is a place of their own discovery. Two years ago it was reinstated and newly inaugurated as part of the collection of Dia Art Foundation.
Recently Max Neuhaus rekindled his earlier desire to create sound works without creating sound and produced Proposals for Aural Gardens, Sound spaces formed solely with plants and topography, Notes according to method I-V, 1988-2004. In Times Square Neuhaus adds sound but leaves the material environment unchanged. With these audible gardens, for the first time, he adds no sound, touching solely flora and terrain. These ideas break with an ancient practice of using wind-and-water-powered automatons to ornament gardens with sound.
The first proposal (I) centers on an interest of Neuhaus over the last thirty years in the sound of pine groves, a fascination with the fact that their singular source of sound – two pine needles rubbing against each other –
is inaudible. It becomes audible only when multiplied by millions of pine needles moving against one another. This multitude of tiny sources of sound, each slightly different from the other, produces an extraordinarily rich, smooth and subtle sound texture. When he proposes a structure of pine trees which one can enter, he gives us the means to perceive this situation, magnifying it by moving these sources of sound close to our ears. The particularity of the sound generated by the passage of the wind through homogeneous zones of various selected flora (II) extends this idea to the sound of other kinds of plants and to a larger scale. Here we have passages and larger forms within which to focus upon singular sounds.
The change in sound upon descending below ground into resonant corridors (IV) is a different kind of aural experience. We leave the phonic world above and move into a space which transforms the sounds we make either consciously or inadvertently into resonances. Walking down into sunken-bowl shapes lined with sound-absorbing vegetation (III) is the opposite – we enter zones of open stillness.
Neuhaus' proposal to employ large curved surfaces to focus and project sound (V) is the most ambitious of these ideas. It gives him the opportunity to build invisible labyrinths of sound. The scale of the walls he proposes gives them extraordinary capabilities for collecting sound while allowing their special curves to remain visually unnoticed. By constructing intersecting networks of focus and projection with these surfaces he could create a world of sound never imagined before where subjective reorientation is engendered by the relocation of sound itself.
In short, we are offered gardens conceived by ear in which each element in the design is considered from the ear's point of view rather than that of the eye. The ineluctable modality of the visible, in the words of Joyce's Ulysses, has its perfect match in the ineluctable modality of the diaphonic with a difference, a difference from which a new object of perception emerges.
In Max Neuhaus' hands, hearing and seeing are states oddly hard to tell apart, where nothing stays the same from one moment to the next. The future visitors to these gardens will be no doubt perplexed in the beginning of their visit. All sorts of things will be presented to them which they do not understand: the odd nature of the sound, the fresh character and pitch, borrowed from plants and shaped by the earth itself, unexplained and mysterious sounds, a humming in the ears. Even the path they follow in search of the sound and its source will seem to them as if it was designed to perplex. Their ordinary criteria of belief, their day-to-day sense of the distinctions to be drawn between things seen and things heard, have been shattered. Neuhaus' spirits will make such a garden an unexplained wonder.
Yehuda Safran, "Shaping Sound,"
Domus 876, December 2004, 72-77.