BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 11 SEP 95
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Issue 25

Max Neuhaus

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 11 SEP 95

Max Neuhaus' drawings are neither plans nor notations. Instead, they could be described as two-dimensional interpretations of his sound pieces. Their presentation at the Villa Arson coincides with the publication of a book on Neuhaus' work, in three volumes at present but soon to swell to five.

As a boy, Neuhaus studied drumming with Gene Krupa. When he was 23 he joined Pierre Boulez' Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and proceeded to give recitals at Carnegie Hall and tour Europe playing the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, including the impossible Zyklus. By the time Neuhaus' percussion repertoire had been recorded (Columbia Masterworks MS 7139), however, his career had changed direction. From 1966 onwards, 'music' gave way to 'sound': a wider brief with, potentially, a larger audience ­ drive-in sound, sound to be heard underwater, sound made by fans rotating on New York rooftops; a project to alter the sound of police sirens; a permanent sound installation in Times Square... 'High' culture had given way to 'low': 'I am not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically initiated audiences', he confessed in a programme note in 1974, 'I am interested in making music for people'. And indeed, even his first sound work, Public Supply, which used mixing and answering devices to weave a combination of sounds, stressed communality and participation by combining conversations from all over the United States. Underlying such experiments was a populist ideal; in his own words, he was considering music 'as an activity rather than a product'. Since then, Neuhaus has created sounds for telephone companies, motorists and works in spaces that range in size and scope from a small kitchen to a large museum. For him, drawing plays a major part in the process of making. In addition, it can be a means of testing and extending the ideas involved.

In the course of the last two decades, not only the means of installing sound in such spaces but also Neuhaus' motives for doing so have changed. While volume II of Neuhaus' Sound Works contains plans, volume III, called Place, is devoted to drawings per se, with words to accompany them, the combination culminating in a third work in which evocation becomes the prime motive. Free of specificity, immediacy or occasion, the result is a series of propositions in colour, texture, line and language: neither guides nor descriptions, he has emphasised, but 'catalysts for individual trains of thought, active memories, viewpoints into process, and projections of what a thought might become'.

'Walking/ between/ moving/ water/ and/ still./ Meeting/ a quiet/ body of sound/ shifting on the still/ water/ surface./ Enclosed by/ a lucent/ sheen'. This verbal evocation of a sound work to be maintained until 1998 at the Domaine de Kerguehennec in France is accompanied on one side by shivery lines in greens and blues and on the other by more irregular marks like reflections on water. Edge is offset by surface, and both directionality and extent are interpreted in early Modernist terms, as a parallel between ripples and sound waves (though far from diagrammatic, the drawings still impart information about texture and extent). At the same time, as Neuhaus has remarked, they become part of the process of perception of his sounds. Neuhaus has strong views about that process. Objecting to decoration with sound ­ the arbitrariness of the choice of music in public places ­ he aims at specificity, a heightening and clarification of existing possibilities, in this case natural. The effect is to stress elements which are partly directional, partly indicative of extent, but also partly descriptive. Choice of size, colour and application is crucial, and as a reminder of that, several first drafts of drawings are shown in order to indicate the number and type of decisions that arose in the course of their making.

'Exposing/ aural/ reality': this line from a Neuhaus text offers one description of his works. But what constitutes aural reality? In Cologne, where the bell of the Church of Saint Cecilia had been removed, Neuhaus summoned a 'ghost' in the form of its sound in a little park nearby. Was it this that sentimental locals heard or their memory of its sound? Exactly what is seen or heard intrigues Neuhaus. So does the process of perception in general. Seeing his drawings makes us aware of the sheer complexity of that process, but above all its inexhaustibility.