The Max Neuhaus Beep: But What’s it for? June 28, 1973

Max Neuhaus has been circulating posters giving a rather cryptic description of a ‘sound discoverable’ which he has installed at the Jay Street-Boro Hall subway station. So one afternoon last week I went out to Brooklyn to look for it. I wandered around for a while, but I couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary until I finally took the escalator up to the street level and noticed some soft electronic beeping.

Numerous loudspeakers are mounted at the top of four columns in the little plaza in front of the Transit Authority office building. They emit two electronic tones, which beep along in steady rhythms. The speed changes slightly once in a while, and the tones wander from column to column. It is a pleasant sound, and I enjoyed just standing there listening to it for a while, but I began to wonder what other people thought of it, especially those who had to listen to it every day. There were quite a few people standing around, mostly Transit Authority employees on their coffee breaks, so I decided to approach one of them. ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you aware of that beeping sound?’ ‘Oh that. It’s always there.’ ‘Do you like it?’ ‘It doesn’t make much difference to me one way or the other. I don’t think it will add much to the noise pollution. What is it anyway?’ ‘A composer named Max Neuhaus put it up.’ ‘But what’s it for?’ ‘I don’t know for sure. I guess he just thought it would be more interesting to listen to than all the trucks and buses going by.’ ‘You’re not telling me it’s supposed to be music, are you?’ ‘No. Not exactly.’ I suppose that was not a very courageous answer, but I didn’t feel like getting into a discussion about definitions. ‘By the way, do you ever notice it change very much?’ ‘No. It always seems about the same to me.’ I thanked him and approached someone else. ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you aware of that beeping sound?’ ‘I’ve noticed it from time to time, but I don’t know what it is.’ ‘It’s an electronic sound installation that runs automatically. A composer got a grant to put it up.’ ‘No kidding. I thought it was just to keep the pigeons away or something.’ I laughed. ‘It may do that too, but I don’t think it was intended for that.’ ‘What’s it for?’ There was that question again. I decided to take a fresh approach. ‘I guess it’s just decoration. You know. Sometimes they put a fountain or a piece of sculpture in front of a building so that there will be something to look at. So this composer put sounds out here so that there would be something to listen to.’ ‘But what’s it for?’ ‘That’s about all I know about it.’ It seemed time to change the subject. ‘By the way, have you ever noticed the sound change, or does it always seem about the same to you?’ Now he became more involved in the conversation. ‘I remember one night when I had to work late, till about 7 or 8, and when I came out it seemed a little slower than usual. Is that possible?’ ‘It’s quite possible. I don’t know exactly how it’s set up, but it’s supposed to sound different depending on the temperature, the sunlight, the humidity, and even the air pressure.’ ‘I wondered if it might be doing something like that.’ ‘Do you have any particular feelings about the sound. I mean, do you like it?’ ‘It doesn’t bother me, but it doesn’t do anything for me either. Not like music. Music makes me feel something, but this doesn’t make me feel anything.’ I tried another approach. ‘Does it remind you of anything?’ ‘Well, it sometimes does. Once I happened to be listening to it, and it sounded to me like some little children playing. Like the way they play with their little shovels and things, not really paying attention to the sounds they make. You know what I mean?’ I couldn’t relate to this specific image, but I appreciated his comment a great deal. Here was a man with a very restricted definition of music, who probably wouldn’t have been caught dead at an avant-garde concert. And yet Max Neuhaus, with his crazy weather-sensitive 24-hour-a-day synthetic music machine, had evoked a highly personal response from him. Nor was he the only one. Several people I spoke to said they were reminded of birds, and no doubt hundreds, or even thousands of people have had some form of aesthetic response while passing through the plaza.

‘What is it for?’ still seems to be the most common reaction, and the installation, which has been up since January, is only beginning to work on the heads of most of the people who pass under it every day. Gradually, however, they are bound to become more aware of what they are hearing, and eventually they will probably begin to discern the difference between the rainy day beeping and the sunny day beeping, or between the winter version and the summer version.

Those of us who do not frequent the area will never be able to appreciate that aspect of the installation. But when we happen to pass by, we too may perceive the soft electronic beeping, somewhere between the traffic and the subways. We may even stop long enough to notice how pleasant it sounds and how gracefully it moves from one column to another. And perhaps, just perhaps, we will keep our ears a little more open wherever we go. After all, if we don’t, we may miss Max’s 1973/shredding-the-climax-carrot piece.