`Times Square' reflects sounds of city

May 29, 2002|By John Rockwell | John Rockwell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Pedestrians hurrying over a grate in the triangular median where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge in Times Square, just south of 46th Street, rarely seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. But Max Neuhaus hopes that, subliminally, their lives are being changed.

Neuhaus is a sound artist, a trained musician and a former famous percussionist who now shapes what he calls intangible sound in space, rather than the tangible sound of a composer working in time. "Times Square" is, if not necessarily his masterpiece, then at least his only work still up and running in the United States.

Or down and running, in this case. The piece consists of sound generators and a loudspeaker installed in a subway ventilation chamber, which is covered by a grate over which pedestrians scurry.

What people hear, if they hear anything, is a dappled, organlike drone, several overlaid pitches that shift as pedestrians pace about the grate, depending on which overtones are reinforced by the resonances. The sound is beautiful if concentrated on, but lost in the din of New York if it isn't. If you hear it, you keep hearing it: Every sustained drone from traffic and machinery sounds like an after-echo. "Once you've been there for 10 minutes," Neuhaus said, "you hear the work for the rest of the day."

The piece was first installed in 1977. Its 10th anniversary was duly celebrated, at which time Wendy Feuer, then director of the Arts for Transit program at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, said it would last another 50 years. No, proclaimed an ebullient Neuhaus, "another 50 decades."

Five years was more like it. Neuhaus dismantled his equipment and put it into storage in 1992 - his commissions were coming almost entirely from Europe, he returned rarely to New York, and there was no way of monitoring his installation.

Now it's back.

The restoration came about courtesy of several enthusiastic, committed allies. Christine Burgin, who owns a gallery in Chelsea, took an interest in Neuhaus' work: the sound installations in Europe and the drawings that he spins off his projects. She knew some important players in the Times Square Business Improvement District, who solicited contributions from corporations in the neighborhood.

Neuhaus then donated his piece to the Dia Center for the Arts, which will oversee its maintenance.

Will this reinstallation prove eternal? Who knows? But listening to it can provide the illusion, amid the bustle and roar of the city, of some kind of quiet eternality.

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