Amidst the traffic of New York's Times Square--honking horns, shuffling tourists, screeching bus tires, and flashing lights-- there are musical sounds, if you listen closely, while standing over the right subway grate. The sound art of Max Neuhaus's Times Square rises up to greet listening ears.
Dia Art Foundation curator Kelly Kivland explained in an interview with Performance Today, that "amongst the cacophony, he [Neuhaus] wanted you to have a moment of pause, that envelops you-- an unusual audible sound, resembling the after-ring of large bells."
Neuhaus's work begins below the ground with speakers tucked under the surface. They generate the sound audible above. As pedestrians pass by or stand over the subway grate at the intersection of 45th Street and Broadway, they may first perceive the work as a gentle rumble, or vibration, through the soles of their shoes and soon the "after-ring" may become noticeable to the ear.
Before Neuhaus was a sound installation artist, he was a successful percussionist. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music. While there, he met John Cage and Morton Feldman. His ears became increasingly alert and attentive to the sonic potential around him.
He organized Listen sessions: Neuhaus guided small audiences on performative, participatory, walking and listening tours of New York City. The tours paused at sites with unique soundscapes. Some stops showcased industrial sounds and others featured the whisper of wind through trees. Listen walks often concluded with a solo percussion performance by Neuhaus himself.
In 1968 Neuhaus decided to leave percussion performance behind entirely and dive more deeply into the creation of sound art. In 1977, with the help of the New York Transit Authority, Neuhaus installed Times Square. Functionally, the work requires loudspeakers and electronic sound generators tucked into the subway ventilation shaft running under a pedestrian area on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets.
The work has likely reached over 20 million sets of ears. That street corner ushers over 1 million people through on New Year's Eve alone (which is, by comparison, 997,196 more sets of ears than the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall can welcome for a given performance).
New York City's Times Square may appear to be completely saturated with the sounds and lights of passing celebrations, fleeting advertisements and musical theater shows, but unlike those things that come and go, Neuhaus's sound art work continues.
"Unlike music, which has a beginning, a middle and an end, a sound installation is a continuous sound environment" explains Alan Licht, author of Sound Art Revisited, in an interview with Performance Today.
Times Square did run continuously from 1977 until 1992. It's components then fell into disrepair. Max Neuhaus, along with help from the Dia Art Foundation, restored and reinstalled the work in 2002. Since then, it's been audible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
It's audible but not easily findable. Tourists and passersby don't always immediately recognize from where the sounds of Neuhaus's Times Square originate. The physical work is unmarked and underground.
The best advice may be to listen carefully for unexpected sonic collaborations between the city's signature sounds of daily life (traffic, horns, tourists' chatter etc), and the works of fine sound art, at every corner- just in case. The effort could be rewarded with meaningful moments of pause and reflection -- just as Neuhaus hoped to create through his work Times Square.