Max Neuhaus’s Water Whistle May 23, 1974

‘Water Whistle’ is a unique form of environmental music which Max Neuhaus has been installing in various swimming pools for the past couple of years. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that it requires neither live performers nor electronic equipment. Instead, the music is produced by jets of water which stream through little funnel-shaped contraptions suspended under the water. Though barely perceptible outside the pool, their pleasant, high-pitched whistling sounds are easy to hear whenever your ears are in the water.

The installation varies from swimming pool to swimming pool, but the set-up at the Hotel Paris last weekend was probably typical. Ten whistles of different pitches dangled from two ropes which stretched across the pool in a large ‘X.’ Near the center of the pool quite a few of the whistles could be heard at once, blending into a complex chord. At the peripheries of the pool the sound was simpler, with closer whistles masking out more distant ones.

Completely submerging oneself in water is a special experience to begin with. I can’t think of anything that shuts out the world and draws one into oneself quite so effectively, and when the water is vibrating with the sound of Neuhaus’s whistles, this feeling is amplified quite a bit.

After I got accustomed to the weird situation, I began exploring the water more consciously, comparing the sounds at different points, listening to them change, and trying to focus on them in different ways. I became particularly fascinated by the discovery that the sounds did not change when I moved my head, the way sounds in air do. For some reason sound disperses more in water, and I could never be sure from which direction a tone was coming.

The biggest limitation on music for wind instruments is that the performer has to stop for breath so often. The biggest limitation on Neuhaus’s underwater music is that the listener has to stop for breath so often. It seemed like every time I started really getting into something it was time to come up for air. So it was never possible to relate to the music the way I might have in a concert hall.

But ‘Water Whistle’ is not intended to be a piece of music as such. The pitches waver quite a bit as the whistles bob up and down in the water, and the composer has not even attempted to present specific melodic or rhythmic material. The intention, I think, is simply to create a unique environment which allows people to experience sound and water in a special way. And that much does it quite vividly.