It’s 6am on a balmy New York morning in October 2017; Reed Hays, one half of Reed & Caroline, is leading me to a specific section of Times Square. On the way, he tells me what the area was like when he lived nearby in the late 1980s, a time when this part of the city was shorthand for a gaudy seediness, bordered by low-rent porn cinemas and XXX-rated video stores, with pickpockets and scammers taking advantage of the tourists that have congregated at the intersection between Broadway and Seventh Avenue for over 100 years.
Our destination is an unmarked, nondescript triangular grate between 45th and 46th streets, covering a ventilation shaft from the subway tracks running just below the street. Unimpressive it may be, but it is the location of what may well rank among the most frequently-visited works of art on the planet, even though the vast majority of those visiting Times Square have no idea that it’s even there. This is Max Neuhaus’s Times Square, originally – and appropriately – titled Underground Music(s). Neuhaus installed his most famous piece of sound art here in 1977 after four years of back and forth with New York’s transit authority, and it ran continuously, 24/7, until 1992; it was restored and activated again in 2002, and has again run uninterrupted ever since*.
Neuhaus was no stranger to New York’s art world in 1977, and neither was he an unknown in the field of sound. He had started out as an avant garde percussionist, realising definitive versions of pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus and moving on to embrace electronics for a recording of John Cage’s Fontana Mix. By the mid-60s he had moved squarely into the domain of sound art, creating pieces like Fan Music (1967) on rooftops in the Bowery, where the volume and nature of the sonic output depended entirely upon the prevailing weather, a read across to Cage’s obsession with chance and the I Ching. Fan Music was the first of what Neuhaus would call his Place pieces for their physical and geographical characteristics, and it is within this series that Times Square would become his most prominent work.
“The work is an invisible block of sound,” wrote Neuhaus about Times Square in 1992, just as the installation concluded its first run. “Its sonority, a rich harmonic sound resembling the after ring of large bells, is an impossibility within its context. Many who pass through it, however, can dismiss it as an unusual machinery sound from below ground.” The sound is elusive, varying according to where you stand on the grate, appearing to swell and move toward the periphery of your hearing imperceptibly. With timetabled regularity a subway train interrupts the sound, distorting and confusing the otherwise smooth resonances of the piece.
The sound – a calming, ringing drone, in the manner of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House works – is a major seventh chord made up of many tiny pulses arranged rapidly in sequence, similar to the work of fellow duration music aficionado Phill Niblock. Hays and I ponder how the sound was made, assuming that for it to have been activated in the 1970s it must have been of analogue construction, though period synths of that time needed a stable electric current to prevent them from going out of tune; precise schematics of Neuhaus’s design aren’t readily available, but we conclude that the subway system must have provided the constant current, which might explain the protracted delay in realising the work, alongside securing permission to use of one of transit authority’s ventilation shafts.
What to make of this work? On the one hand, many critics have celebrated Neuhaus’s desire to democratise art by making something like this available freely to so many; on the other hand, its lack of signage or discernible identifying markings means it remains the exclusive preserve of those in the know, thus making it both anti-elitist and elitist simultaneously; Neuhaus himself wrote about moving from the rarefied environs of Carnegie Hall to Times Square as a way of engaging with the ‘culturally uninitiated’, which doesn’t come across as hugely democratic. He observed the piece almost daily on CCTV and volunteered ways of stopping the area’s many street performers – particularly the guitar-strumming Naked Cowboy (Google at your peril) who was something of an offensive nemesis to the artist – from using the piece as a makeshift stage. Some have drawn a thematic link between Times Square and Cage’s 4’33”, the former being bounded by geographical detail and the latter by temporal limits; one whose sounds can never be allowed to operate among complete silence with the other unable to be anything other than hypothetically silent.
Even at 6am, perhaps the ideal time to experience Times Square, the area crackles with a grim energy and if it wasn’t for the precise navigation skills of Hays, I doubt I would have even found the right grate. The billboards are illuminated, a few dispossessed people drag suitcases to or from red-eye flights, an early morning TV programme is being filmed in full view of a small gathering of people keen to catch a glimpse of whichever celebrity figure is being interviewed – but it’s certainly about as quiet as this place ever gets.
Some six months later I found myself doing just that on my way to see Reed & Caroline perform down on the Lower East Side. My only clue to the location of Times Square was the fact that the Naked Cowboy ceased his afternoon performance at the precise moment that I was being carried along by the crowd of awestruck tourists, their eyes raised upward toward the famous neon advertisements, blissfully unaware of the meditative sonic events taking place just beneath their feet.
Words: Mat Smith.
With thanks to Reed Hays, Pidu Russek at the Estate of Max Neuhaus, Dia Art Foundation, Neil Mason and Tin Soldiere. This unpblished piece was originally written for Electronic Sound but was not ultimately published. * At the time of writing, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Times Square is not currently operational (according to the Dia Art Foundation, who maintain the piece), concluding the second run that began in 2002. I Heart NY.
(c) 2018 – 2020 Mat Smith for Electronic Sound / Further.