Max Neuhaus, R.I.P.
Alanna Heiss, who runs the Clocktower in Manhattan and founded and until recently ran P. S. 1 in Queens and who lived with Max Neuhaus years ago, called today in tears to tell me of his death, at age 69 from cancer. He and his Neapolitan wife Sylvia and their young daughter Claudia had recently moved from Capri to Maratea, on the west coast of Italy south of the Bay of Naples. My wife and I saw them on Capri a few years ago, and had a wonderful time.
Partly that was because I deeply admired Max's work, and had proved it by making him a chapter in my first book, All American Music. I first encountered him nearly 40 years ago, when he did a piece consisting of electronic sounds -- dappled shifting sonorities, weird and seductive -- that could only be heard underwater, in a swimming pool (Alanna produced that). This was shortly after he had abandoned his lively career as a solo percussionist, specializing in the outer reaches of the avant garde (Stockhausen, Cage et al.).
Soon thereafter there was Radio Net, sounds phoned by anyone into a central location from all over the world and melded into a collage broadcast back out into the world -- all this before the Internet. He was working recently on a comparable Internet-based extravaganza.
His best known piece is called Times Square, which after a hiatus is again up and running, "permanently." Sounds emerge from a subway chamber beneath a sidewalk grate in the small triangle below 46th street, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge. The continuous music, on a long loop, is strong but subtle: rich, organ-like tones in steady-state but ever-shifting patterns.
One of the work's many fascinations is to observe people's reactions. Most hurry by, oblivious. Others look momentarily puzzled, then press on. If you point out that there are sounds to be heard, some still can't distinguish Neuhaus's music from the everyday roar of the city. A few are mesmerized.
I call Max's work music, but he resisted calling himself a composer (I had no such qualms). The world of classical music barely acknowledged his existence. He was maybe a composer of ambient electronic music, but he really fit into no known schools of vanguard composition and could not be commisioned for performance in any kind of classical-music venue.
Instead, he became a sound artist, a member of the art world, and his patrons were mostly museums, dotted about the country and Europe, especially after he moved to Italy. Right now there is quite wonderful Neuhaus installation on permanent display that can be heard all over Dia Beacon, though better in some spots than others. At five minutes before every hour indistinct sound begins to build, arising from the normal bustle of the museum or, outdoors, from nature. Just as it reaches a humming, almost threatening crescendo at the hour, it cuts off; the silence is shocking, reverse-deafening.
When I ran the Lincoln Center Festival in the mid 90's I had talks with Max about a piece for the plaza. His idea was to install tiny loudspeakers in the niches on the north side of the Metropolitan Opera House. Passers-by would hear nothing, or the faintest whispering murmur. But anyone who sat on the stone benches between the niche walls would be softly enveloped in Neuhausian music, different in each niche. It never happened, because it would have been very expensive (Max didn't work cheap) and because Joe Volpe, grumpily opposed to the festival and implacably opposed to Nat Leventhal, then president of Lincoln Center, would never have permitted the desecration of his palace.
Whether what Max made was music or sound or art-sound or conceptual art or all of the above, it was madly ingenious, exquisitely crafted and very beautiful. I didn't know him all that well, but he always struck me as a volatile mixture of confidence in his own abilities, ambition and reclusive pride. He had a nice life on Capri, and nice plans for his new place on the mainland. I hope his work is sustained, and his achievement is remembered and enjoyed. He deserves no less.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.