Modus Operandi                                                                                                  pdf

I would like to talk about the development of an early work, the first work of mine which can be called a sound installation. It was a radical departure from the current and still prevalent form of production of sound art, i. e. the arrangement where a group of people gather together at a specific time and place and watch and listen to a usually smaller and more specialized group make sound.

I had spent the previous ten years functioning wholly within this context and had come to know it intimately. I felt it had a number of flaws, the major one being the onus of entertainment, a serious burden for any art form. (The visual arts seem to be free from it, while music, dance, and theatre are forced into it, at some level, by the form of the presentation itself.) I also felt I was dealing with an extremely small segment of my society (many of whom were deafened by overexposure to the music of the 18th and 19th centuries). My first opportunity for departure on a large scale came in Buffalo, a city with an unusually large music-loving public and, at that time, a center devoted completely to contemporary activities. I felt it was important to do a work which would be accessible not only to that music public, but also to those who were not initiates of those particular rituals. One problem I saw was making it accessible without being obligatory, not an easy task with sound in a public place.

The idea began with the realization that most people spend a great deal of time in their automobiles (something I'd forgotten, having spent the previous ten years in New York). Most of them listened to sound in their cars over the radio. I didn't know much about the inner

workings of electronic equipment then, but I did remember that singers sometimes used 'wireless' microphones that actually broadcast a short distance to a radio receiver. It seemed like the ideal solution. I decided to form the piece with a large number of these placed in different positions along a stretch of roadway, each one broadcasting a different continuous sound. Since the transmitters broadcast only a short distance I could shape the area covered by each sound by attaching an antenna wire and placing it in the shape I wanted that sound to occupy. It solved the accessibility/obligatory problem (a listener had to tune to the piece) and allowed a complex set of possibilities.

The location I chose was a broad, tree-lined avenue called Lincoln Parkway. The piece began at the main entrance of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and ran south for half a mile. The trees provided a good location for mounting the transmitters and antennas. I began gradually, setting up one transmitter, broadcasting different sounds, driving through them, listening to them over the radio, getting a feel for how they arrived and departed as I drove through them. Then using two transmitters I tried different antenna configurations, listening to how they interacted and mixed with each other on the car radio, gradually building the piece south.

The work was finished in October of 1967 and ran through April of the next year. It wasn't easy. I was taken into custody several times, but then I hadn't learned my disguises yet, nor had I much verbiage, and I had no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomy of the institutional beast.


Previously published in Artforum (New York), January 1980, and in Max Neuhaus: Sound Works, vol. I, Inscription (Ostfildern-Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994), 18-19.