Interview: Max Neuhaus

max-neuhaus.jpgMax Neuhaus is a pioneer of artistic activities with sound. Utilizing the sense of sound he developed in fourteen years as a musician, Neuhaus began to make sound works which were neither music nor events. He coined the term ‘sound installation’ to describe them. In these works without beginning or end, the sounds were placed in space rather than in time.

Neuhaus continued his activities in music with his Networks or Broadcast Works, virtual architectures which act as forums open to anyone for the evolution of new musics. In the first, “Public Supply”, in 1966, he combined a radio station with the telephone network and created a two-way public aural space twenty miles in diameter encompassing New York City, where any inhabitant could join a live dialogue with sound by making a phone call. Later in 1977 with “Radio Net”, he formed a nationwide network with 190 radio stations. To listen to selections from ‘Public Supply” and “Radio Net”, click here. Neuhaus’ current project, “Auracle”, constructs a twenty-four hour a day global entity for live interaction with sound over the Internet.

The following interview with Max Neuhaus was conducted by Peter Traub via email in Spring 2005 for the article “Sounding the Net: Recent Sonic Works for the Internet and Computer Networks.” The article was published in the Contemporary Music Review in the Summer of 2005.

Peter Traub: How did the advent of the internet affect your thinking about networks with respect to the works you had done, and with the work you were yet to do?

Max Neuhaus: If the internet had been there in 1966, I would have used it. It offers the possibility of making an entity with free access twenty four hours a day, globally. This was my direction from the beginning.

Peter: In your paper on the Broadcast Works and Audium, you discuss phone companies initially limiting the bandwidth of phone audio so severely that it removed the ability to hear inflection and tone in conversations. In “Auracle”, I’m wondering if your goal was to do something almost the opposite, by removing the words and effectively having the processing algorithms try to play on the tones and inflections of speech.

Max: Yes, in a way. I wanted to give lay players the most facility to control the synthesis of sounds. Our fine control over inflection does this. Preventing conversation also moves “Auracle” beyond a forum for just talking and opens it up to one for inventing musics. The fact that verbal language is no longer there also surmounts the barriers to making it cross cultural.

Peter: In determining how the vocal interaction would work, what were your main compositional concerns?


Max: The constitution I wrote for “Auracle” provides the clearest summary, I think.

“Auracle” is an architecture, not a musical composition. It is a means for the lay public to meet and invent new kinds of musics together. It is not up to its makers, to design its nature; its up to them to design something which gives its users the means to do this as they play it. It is a permanent entity with a goal of attracting a large and diverse public for the long term.

To these ends it shall:

Be highly transparent allowing the users easily to identify their own activities within an ensemble

Be interfaced solely with the voice

Be designed for maximum sensitivity and response to vocal parameters

Encourage players to engage in new modes of vocal expression

Be free of obvious musical conventions

Encourage collaboration among players

Be engaging and absorbing over the long term

Not produce timbres that sound synthetic

Although they may be completely new, all of “Auracle’s” sounds must convince that they could actually be made by objects in the natural, non-electronic world i.e. they must conform to the physical laws of vibrating objects. Instruments which do not meet this criterion will not be accepted.

Peter: On the one hand, you created a system whereby people with no musical experience can create music through using their voice to control the software, but on the other hand, you also created a system that cleverly circumvents the bandwidth limitations of the net that so many people still experience. Clearly you have to work within these limitations if you are to make a piece that is accessible to the widest possible audience, but I’m wondering how you think about those limitations? For example, if the average bandwidth limit was much higher for most users, would you have wanted to do something different in terms of how the voice was used or in the amount of data shared between participants?

Max: Yes, I suppose so. I envision “Auracle” as a permanent entity which will continue beyond my person. As the internet evolves, I hope Auracle will too. Our opening up the design of its instruments to third parties is the first step in this direction. Auracle’s constitution is the only thing that is fixed. It defines what Auracle is and keeps it distinct. How it is actually implemented I hope will always evolve with future advances in technology, of course, but most importantly with new ways of thinking about music.

Peter: A number of other interviewees have written about the fallibility of the internet and networks being a particular point of interest for them in their work. They are interested in the ways in which the network fails or produces unexpected results (Jason Freeman’s N.A.G. being an example). This interest seems to be a common thread among a number of current artists. Do you have a primary set of concerns or interests when thinking about the internet as a musical or artistic resource? If so, how do these concerns tie into or stem from your pre-internet network pieces, and how do they differ?

Max: When one begins working with any new medium it is important to understand what its intrinsic strengths and limitations are. For me, it makes no sense to try and make it do things outside its nature. For example the tight synchronization in time of traditional music is not available on the internet today. This does not mean that one can not make music with it. It just means one has to think about possibilities for music without this particular parameter. As for the unexpected, the broad range of people that “Auracle” is open to will always provide this.

Peter: I think that for most people, the net’s intrinsic strengths and limitations are considered in the context of communication, commerce, etc. Artists may often see these things a little differently (such as viewing particular limitations as points for aesthetic exploration). I’m curious what you see as the internet’s intrinsic strengths and limitations, especially with consideration toward your work?

Max: The internet’s strength lies in its quantum boost to multi-path communication. The fact that it is almost free of charge changes its nature – bringing the right to communicate up to the same level as the right to walk down the street. It creates an extraordinary new layer of locus in our world.

In terms of my work it has changed many things from providing a new venue to increasing working flexibility leaving it unconstrained by geography – Auracle was built by people stretched across nine time zones. It also allows us to develop new ways of living, perhaps. We can now find a good place for our bodies without worrying about whether it’s the most stimulating place for the mind: through the web the mind can be anywhere we wish whenever we wish.

I saw the process start with the advent of cheaper telephone rates – at one point one could begin to ‘visit’ people on the phone without traveling. It was still awkward though, you had to know precisely where and when to reach someone. The next step was the fax, this almost accidental development by the Japanese to facilitate working with ideograms in the twentieth century which was then unexpectedly embraced by the rest of the world. It gave us even more freedom, we no longer needed to consider where a person was as a one page fax cost so little to send. We also didn’t need to coordinate in time, a person read the fax when he was ready. All we needed to know was the fax number.

E-mail takes us one step further, we don’t need to know where a person is and we don’t need to coordinate in time – we can pick up our e-mail from anywhere in the world at any time. These are all fundamental changes in the way we communicate and therefore the way we live.

Peter: In “Public Supply” and “Radio Net”, you seemed to be interested in expanding the area of coverage for the pieces as wide as possible. In some ways, these pieces were similar to current internet-based works that bring together performers from far flung locations for live interaction, or cast sound out over the network and across vast spaces, only to bring it back to create a feedback loop (“Auracle”, Chris Chafe’s “SoundWire” project, a number of projects by Jesse Gilbert, and a piece I am currently working on all do that in some way). Could you talk/write a little about distance and the network? Why was it important to cast such a wide net with “Radio Net” and what is the role that distance plays in “Auracle”? There seems to be an important thread that runs from your early network pieces through current interactive internet-based pieces that deals with bridging these very large geographical spaces, and I am wondering if you could speak to that.

Max: Even before the invention of the term I had always had a fascination with the idea of virtual space – a common space independent of geography. In the sixties and seventies there was no such thing as two-way virtual space. The nearest thing, a long distance phone call was too expensive to be commonly available – a call from New York to California cost the equivalent of ten dollars a minute. The ‘larger’ a virtual space is, the more fascinating, of course, it makes real, lets us actually experience, the dimensions of our planet. Also, the larger it is the more accessible it is, the more people can enter into it.

Peter: With the internet some people might argue that it shrinks our concept of the planet, that it no longer matters whether the person you’re communicating with is next door or ten thousand miles away. Do you think that “Auracle” gives people a different sense of distance than your earlier works, just due to the decreasing sense of distance we all feel due to the ever-growing prevalence of network technologies? If so, was this something you considered in designing the instrument?

Max: I think it both shrinks and expands our concept of the world. When the most common means of communication over long distances was by actually moving a piece of paper from one place to another our sense of distance was very abstract and not so detailed – perhaps three levels, far away, further away and very far away. Even the idea that distant people had a different time of day was abstract. Yes we knew it, but it didn’t become important or even real until the first time you actually talked to someone on the phone who was still in the morning while you were already in the afternoon. The idea of “Auracle’s” global display is to bring global scale back into focus. As you’re playing, you actually see where all the other players in your ensemble are now playing from. It’s not that the new levels of communication shrink the world, but that they create a whole new relation to it and the information within it.

Peter: As with the other interviewees, I leave this last question empty. It is for you to add anything in that you feel is important/critical that I may have overlooked, or to suggest a direction for me to go in with my future questions.

Max: My Networks propose the self-evolution of new musics. Their premise is a form of music making which remains now only in societies untouched by modern man. Rather than something to be listened to, music in these cultures is an activity open to the public at large — a dialogue with sound rather than a performance. I believe this to be the original impulse for music in mankind. The internet and the broadcast/telephone networks I invented previously offered me a contemporary means of reinstating this practice.

Further reading: Broadcast works (pdf)

Aug 20, 2007
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