Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise

By Megan Murph


On December 6, 1974, the American experimental percussionist and sound artist, Max Neuhaus (1939-2009), published a New York Times editorial titled, “BANG, BOOooom, ThumP, EEEK, tinkle.” This editorial protested the “silly bureaucrats” of New York City’s Department of Air Resources’ “dangerously misleading” noise ordinances by stating the city’s “noise propaganda” only made “more noise.” Neuhaus considered this editorial the largest work from his Listen series, which spanned from 1966 to 1979 and included his listening walks. The editorial printed two years after the United States Federal Government passed the Noise Control Act (1972) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency’s studies pertaining to the growth of noise across the nation. These studies investigated the psychological and physiological impact of noise on humans, animals, and their landscape. Scholarship pertaining to the shifting meaning and perception of noise has largely neglected Neuhaus’s contributions. I respond to this lacuna by considering how Neuhaus’s editorial rests within his Listen series and call attention to the way he protested the subjection of all urban sounds as “noise.” I argue that these ideas ultimately led towards the creation of his most famous installation, Times Square (1977). I consider works by Neuhaus in conjunction with contributions by R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project in order to better understand the changing and often conflicted discourses about how the public should listen and about the larger eco-political implications of noise abatement.

Within the context of the seminar we took with Dr. Kwon, my ecomusicological approach was unique for its consideration of sound art, especially since Neuhaus paid early attention to soundscapes and soundwalks that later became critical components of the acoustic ecology movement. I soon became aware, however, that Neuhaus’s ideas and actions did not cohere with ecomusicology as neatly as those of Schafer and others that followed from the acoustic ecology movement. Intrigued by this, I began to explore an approach that combined interdisciplinary ecocriticism (how the selected work illustrates environmental concerns and/or deals with nature) with sound studies (how the sounds of a work are heard, how the sounds interact with the world, and beyond). In this way, I hope to help contribute to a growing dialogue between the two often overlapping complex fields. This paper comes from coursework and research compiled from 2014-2015. The project has since evolved, leading to a presentation on Neuhaus’s Sirens project at the Society for American Music annual meeting in 2016 (Boston) and continuing into my dissertation research.

Fascinated with the idea of Neuhaus writing an op-ed piece about noise and its regulation, I began to read more about noise abatement. I soon began to wonder, how is noise determined? How is it controlled? Who or what is making noise? Who gets the power to control noise? Goldsmith (2012) discusses the long and complex history of noise, the relationship between society and noise, the control of noise, and the use of noise as weapon or protest. The power dynamics of noise control date back to the Greeks. The word “noise” derived from the Latin word “nausea,” meaning seasickness, which evolved into the English definition of noise as an “unwanted or disturbing sound,” which is unwanted when it interferes with quality of life. With the passing of the Noise Control Act (1972), the EPA strived to reduce noise pollution in urban areas and to minimize noise-related psychological and physiological impacts on humans, effects on wildlife and property, and other issues. The agency was also assigned to run experiments to study the effects of noise. These initiatives were a reflection of the greater American concern with urban planning. The government’s negative response to noise created opportunities for sound artists and musicians to combat or defend the acts in unique ways.

During the early 20th century, definitions of noise within western art music have varied from the futurists to John Cage. Futurist composers and artists glorified the industrial sounds from their time and encouraged others to take part in the new sonic experiences, as explained in Filippo Tommaso Marrinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” from 1909. By the 1950s, advances in electronic instruments allowed for sonic explorations made by Varèse, Cage, Stockhausen, and others (Ouzounia 2013, 89). John Cage’s definitions of music, sound, and noise changed throughout his lifetime, but in his 1937 “The Future of Music: Credo” he wrote on the incorporation of noise within music:

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the use of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored….Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. (Cage 1937, 3)

By the end of his life in 1992, he stated:

They say, “you mean it’s just sounds?” thinking that for something to just be a sound is to be useless, whereas I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket or that it’s president or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. (Cage 1992)

Thus, Cage saw sound, noise, and music as fluid based upon artistic intention. Similarly, Neuhaus, a friend, admirer, and performer of Cage’s works, dealt with the meaning of sound and noise through audience interaction.

On the afternoon of March 27, 1966, Neuhaus took his audience outside of the concert hall when he met a group of participants who had been invited by word-of-mouth in the Lower East Side. They met to experience a “Concert of Traveled and Traveling Music” with Neuhaus leading them around this neighborhood to listen to their surrounding environment, hearing sounds from a rumbling power plant, highways, river, people in the streets, and so on. The Sunday afternoon walk concluded at Neuhaus’s studio apartment, where he performed many works of his standard percussion repertoire (Dekleva 2003, 45). Neuhaus saw Listen as his “first independent work as an artist” (Neuhaus 1990, 1). Eventually, he stamped the participants on the hand with the word “LISTEN” instead of providing them with a program or itinerary. He recalled:

As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sounds into the concert hall, from Russolo through Edgard Varèse and finally to John Cage where live street sounds were brought directly into the hall. I saw these activities as a way of giving aesthetic credence to these sounds – something I was all for. I began to question the effectiveness of the method, though. Most members of the audience seemed more impressed with the scandal of “ordinary” sounds placed in a “sacred” place than with the sounds themselves, and few were able to carry the experience over to a new perspective on the sounds of their daily lives. I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside? (Neuhaus, n.d.)

The piece included “do-it- yourself” versions, which involved Neuhaus printing posters or postcards “LISTEN,” instructing that they be placed in locations selected by the cards’ recipients (Neuhaus 1990, 1). This version required the audience to interact with the work, selecting locations where future listeners could experience sounds.

The largest iteration of the Listen series, however, was the 1974 editorial (Neuhaus 1990, 1). As Neuhaus saw it, “a million people” could have read the paper and been exposed to his ideas on listening and noise. Prior to writing the editorial, Neuhuas had encountered a pamphlet created by New York City’s Department of Air Recourses titled “Noise Makes You Sick,” which was disseminated along the streets and subway. While he agreed dangers to hearing could occur from listening to excessively loud sounds at prolonged levels, he criticized the pamphlet for making urban dwellers afraid of their sound environment. Neuhaus criticized the Department’s definition of noise as “any unwanted sound” and supported a more progressive attitude that human response to sound is socially conditioned and that no sound is “intrinsically bad.” He stated: “How we hear [sound] depends a great deal on how we have been conditioned to hear it.” Neuhaus feared the department’s attitude towards urban sounds and attempts at publicly controlling would only force their citizens to be anti-noise as well. He concluded his article by stating, “silencing our public environment is the acoustic equivalent of painting in black,” believing that if the urban sounds were oppressed, the true character of the urban sonic space would be as well (Neuhaus, 1974).

Robert A. Baron, author of the 1970 anti-noise book, The Tyranny of Noise, wrote to The New York Times in response to Neuhaus’s editorial. Baron stated:

Of course electronic percussionist Max Neuhaus does not like noise abatement. At one concert he added electronic amplification ‘so that not only the initial impact tore at the ears, but the echoes as well.’ No wonder he would have us believe excessive noise is harmless…Sound does affect the glands and internal organs…noise irritates, disturbs the sleep stages and awakens New Yorkers…Our ears are for hearing, and it is precisely for that reason that we must fight as hard as we can to protect them from hearing loss. And one source of hearing loss, it should be noted, is amplified music. (Baron, 1974)

Neuhaus was more bothered by the condemning attitude that all noise is “bad” than the physical symptoms of noise overload. This resonates with Jacques Attali’s analysis of the politics and discourse of noise as something that is affiliated with disruption, violence, and social deviance. Attali argues that the musical process of controlling noise mirrors the political process of structuring society (Attali 1977, 10). In this vein, Neuhaus’s editorial, and his Listen series as a whole, challenges listeners to expand their conception of music and sound and resist governmental efforts to control noise. His series ultimately could be read as an intervention against governmental or societal encroachments on how we as humans listen and interact in various sonic environments.

In his essay on the Listen series, Neuhaus recalled taking hundreds of students from a “university somewhere in Iowa” on a listening walk. The faculty was expecting a lecture and was outraged when Neuhaus took them out of the auditorium to walk and listen rather than speaking to the students about listening. Neuhaus recalled: “A number of years later, when Murray Schafer’s soundscape project became known, I am sure these academics didn’t have any problem accepting similar ideas” (Neuhaus 1990, 2). This statement shows Neuhaus’s Listen series may have predated Schafer’s conceptions and suggests Neuhaus’s awareness of Schafer’s soundwalking.

Already concerned with noise in his 1967 book, Ear Cleaning, Schafer offered ear training exercises not only to prepare his music students for contemporary music but also to get them thinking about the sounds they hear in connection with their environment. Schafer went on to create the World Soundscape Project, which surveyed sounds from across urban and rural areas within and outside of Canada. Coming from an anti-noise approach, Schafer, backed by the findings of the WSP, published The Book of Noise in 1970 and A Survey of Community Noise Bylaws in Canada in 1972. The Book of Noise served as an introduction to noise pollution on an international level and its impact on any citizen. Like Ear Cleaning, The Book of Noise was suitable for music education and children. A Survey of Community Noise Bylaws in Canada served as a compendium of noise regulations from Canadian cities, with commentaries and statistical analysis to guide the reader and even offer legal advice on ways to deal with noise on a local, municipal level.

Most well known is Schafer’s 1977 book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. In this book, Schafer examines pre- and post- industrial soundscapes and puts forward methods of analyzing soundscapes. He discusses the evolution of nature and urban sounds as well as the perceptions and ideals connected to sound and music. In The Soundscape, Schafer also offers commentary on the soundwalk and how it may differ from a listening walk: “A listening walk and a soundwalk are not quite the same things…a listening walk is simply a walk with a concentration on listening…The soundwalk is an exploration of the soundscape of a given area using a score as a guide” (Schafer 1977, 212-213).

Schafer’s comments above seem to suggest that he may have been aware of Neuhaus and his Listen series. While Schafer explicitly differentiates listening walks from soundwalks, I believe that the two share strong commonalities even if their intentions were different. Schafer’s earlier goals were to help students clean their ears from noisy, unnatural, urban sounds that were polluting the once pure environment. His concern for noise pollution and environmental awareness contrasts with Neuhaus’s 1974 editorial. While both are dealing with similar concepts and influences, the two project their responses to listening in slightly different ways. Neuhaus’s listening walks explored the environment and the physical space the sounds were in. Neuhaus embraced the urban, post-industrial sounds within his city environment while Schafer placed more appreciation on “nature.” Some scholars, including David Toop (2010) and Steve Goodman (2010), have criticized Schafer’s idealized view of nature and see nature as a weapon of power. Tom Kohut questions the separation of urban/ modern sounds with rural/nostalgic sounds and discusses the use of nature as a weapon of power during noise abatement’s history, arguing that this served as a mode of social control (Kohut 2015, 5-8). This critique resonates with historical geographer Neil Smith’s views on the production and the exploitation of nature for the sake of bourgeois control and aligns with recent work by urban political ecologists intended to address the active role of the city in history (Smith 1990; Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006; Cronon 1995). We might even consider the overtones of Schafer’s ideals: his access to rural living and romanticizing of the wilderness could be seen as coming from a place of middle-class privilege, as Andra McCarney has suggested (McCartney 2014, 212-213).

Neuhaus’s Times Square is a great example of an interactive sound work that challenges the public’s definition of noise within a permanent space. In 1977, speakers were installed underground in Times Square for what would become Neuhaus’s best known permanent installation. Sounds “resembling the after ring of large bells” emerge from the subway grille as one walks through the middle of the triangular pedestrian area at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between 46th and 45th streets (Tomkins 1988, 116). Metal sidewalk grates separate the area where the sounds emerge underground from the area where the pedestrians walk above. The sounds are created by amplifying the resonance of the space in a pre-existing ventilation chamber built below the street. Neuhaus linked underground electronic sound generators to a loudspeaker that resonates the exact frequencies of the chamber (Rockwell, 1987). What occurs is a meditative drone, although the amplified sounds differ slightly depending on the sounds moving around the chamber – altering depending on the location and perception of the pedestrian. The sounds blend into the rich energy and activities of the hectic city, and many passers-by are unaware of Neuhaus’s piece and dismiss the sound as the result of underground machinery.

The piece ran almost uninterrupted from 1977 until Neuhaus moved to Europe in 1992. Upon his return, the piece was reinstalled in 2002 and has been running twenty-four hours a day since his death in 2009, supervised by the Dia Art Foundation. The work is unmarked, which means the public becomes aware of the piece as they notice it, or as Neuhaus says, is “ready” to notice it (Loock 2005). Since it is permanent, it is inscribed in the social space and is in contact with millions of people, from different cultures, over decades on a daily basis. According to Ulrich Loock, a curator of the Kunsthalle in Bern, Times Square departs from traditional conceptions of music because Neuhaus separates sound from the dimension of time (Loock 2005). Even for those aware of Neuhaus’s work, the specific source of the continuous and unchanging sounds may remain a mystery. Continuing day and night, Times Square has little in common with a musical composition whose structure is articulated through time; instead, the formal boundaries that define Times Square are essentially spatial ones. The structure is open and the public may decide to experience the work for just a few seconds or for a longer period of time. The listener’s positions shape their experience of the work to a considerable degree. Times Square also differs from most concert performances in its ambient nature, disappearing into the city’s soundscape for those pedestrians who do not even recognize its existence.

Ulrich Loock wrote that “listening [and] perceiving in Neuhaus’s work is an activity, a question of orientation, of differentiating, of exploring, of shifting…” (Loock 2005). Neuhaus’s concern for the public’s shifting perspective of sound in a city resonates with Michel De Certeau’s ideas on the tactical uses of power in urban space. In Times Square, we see temporal and spatial dimensions continuously altered; the act of walking or driving through a city becoming variable due to the shift in spatial and aural perceptions of each individual. Times Square also emphasizes the tactical because it can only be experienced at ground or subterranean level, not accessible for those in the buildings above (De Certeau 1984, 91-92).

The place, Times Square, is a monument of historic, economic, and popular culture with 39 million visitors annually. Every day approximately 330,000 people, both locals and tourists, pass through the area (Owen 2013). It is a symbol of the intersection of homogenized commercialism with complex developmental histories of ownership, spatial control, and mobility. In this context, the meaning of Neuhaus’s piece is constantly in flux. In his New York Times review of the work, John Rockwell stated:

Times Square is so many things to too many people, but one thing it is to everybody is noise…but for those who listen closely, there is another kind of noise… not everybody realizes they’re in the presence of art, or of anything at all. Pedestrians routinely march across the grate without giving the slightest sign of recognition. But for others, the piece is an invitation to stop and contemplate with a sudden, almost furtive pleasure. (Rockwell, 1987)

Neuhaus’s Listen series, which included his listening walks and the “BANG, BOOooom, ThumP, EEEK, tinkle” editorial, and his Times Square all challenge boundaries that separate artistic mediums and disciplines. He raises the fundamental question of how we place and perceive works that call for the audience to experience a particular space or location through noise. Going beyond works meant to be appreciated in a concert hall, these works engage the public at large who interact with them in everyday life. Yet, his output connects to the public on a political level by opposing the subjection of all sounds as “noise” and rejecting the control of artistic and social norms. Neuhaus’s editorial in particular attacks the New York City Department of Air Control public policies by questioning what is agreeable sound. His emphasis on listening, moreover, may be seen as a more inclusive and early articulation of the attention to soundscapes later espoused by Murray Schafer and the acoustic ecology movement. Unlike Schafer, however, Neuhaus refused to qualify soundscapes and embraced all sound, even those that could easily be associated with excessive urbanization or deemed harmful to humans or other forms of life. Lastly, Neuhaus challenges us to re-think noise, making us confront it and reckon with its material and emotional effects, especially in the urban or otherwise developed soundscapes where much of humanity resides. Thus, complicating the history and legacy of Schafer’s soundwalks and focusing attention on Neuhaus, who offered an alternate discourse about how to approach noise and sound, offer particular nuances to the connections between sound studies and ecomusicology.


Papers from this panel:

1. Donna Lee Kwon, “Overlapping Ecomusicological Realms: Teaching Ecomusicology to Graduate Students through Collaborative Exploration”

2. Tanner Jones, “Military Expansion on the ‘Island of Peace’: Protest Through Ritual”

3. Megan Murph, “Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise

4. Ben Norton, “Thin Green Line: Environmental Politics and Punk Music”


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Dekleva, Dasha. 2003. “Max Neuhaus: Sound Vectors.” MA thesis, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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Ouzounia, Gascia. 2013. “Sound Installation Art: From Spatial Poetics to Politics, Aesthetics to Ethics.” In Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience, edited by Georgina Born, 73-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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—.1977. The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books.

—. 1988. The Thinking Ear: Complete Writings on Music Education. Canada: Arcana Editions.

Smith, Neil. 1990. Uneven Development: Nature, Capitol, and the Production of Space. Basil Blackwell Publishing.

Tomkins, Calvin. 1988. “HEAR.” New Yorker, October 24.

Toop, David. 2010. Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum.

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Labatt Breweries of Canada.


Megan Murph is a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology and Ethnomusicology at the University of
Kentucky with a dissertation titled, “Max Neuhaus, R. Murray Schafer, and the Challenges of
Noise.” She has presented research at SAM, IASPM-Brazil, Acadprog (Dijon, France), SEM-
Midwest, AMS-South, DOPE (Dimensions of Political Ecology), Boston University’s Graduate
Student Conference, UK, LSU, USC-Upstate, and Brevard College. Megan has taught Creativity
and Innovation in Rock Music (MUS 222) and Introduction to Music (MUS 100). She served as
national student co-chair of the Society for American Music’s Student Forum and the President
of UK’s FOCUS (Graduate Music Research Association).