The source of secret sound under NYC’s Times Square revealed

NYT describes sound as ‘continuous oooom-like mantra, a moan, a reverberating bell, or an organ-like drone’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 08 December 2021 16:01
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The secret sound emanating from the grates in the ground at Times Square in New York City has been revealed to be an art installation.

“There’s a secret here in Times Square where millions of people pass by every single day have no clue that the sounds emanating here from the subway grates are so strange. It’s a silent hum,” TikToker Ariel Viera says in one of his videos that has now racked up 2.5m views.

“But what is it? Is it some kind of subway malfunction? Is it steam waiting to burst out? Is it maybe Cthulhu? Or maybe the Cloverfield monster ready to come out from the New York City underground?” he added.

“Well, no. In 1977, Max Neuhaus was hired to install these fake subway grates as a sound installation. So what people are listening to is art,” Mr Viera said. He added that the grates were removed in 1992 but that Mr Neuhaus became so popular that the grates were put back into place in 2002.

In 2006, The New York Times described the sound as a “continuous oooom-like mantra, a moan, a reverberating bell, or an organlike drone”.

Mr Neuhaus, who died in 2009, told the paper in 2006 that the installation intentionally lacks any sign or plaque noting the art.

“I wanted a work that wouldn’t need indoctrination,” he said in 2006 about what he called a sound sculpture.

“The whole idea is that people discover it for themselves,” he told The New York Times. “They can’t explain it. They take possession of it as their own discovery. They couldn’t do that if it were labelled ‘An Artwork by Max Neuhaus.’”

Born in Texas and raised in Westchester, a New York City suburb, Mr Neuhaus at one point wanted to be a jazz drummer and attended the Manhattan School of Music.

“I happened to be passing through Times Square and I walked across that island and knew I would do something there,” he said.

He added that the artwork was “an impossibility within its context”, referring to it as a “rich, harmonic sound texture resembling the after-ring of large bells”.

Several groups and a number of individuals worked together to bring back the sound sculpture, spending $150,000 to reinstall it.

Laura Raicovich, the director of external affairs at one of the groups – Dia Art Foundation – told The New York Times in 2006 that the sound was “highly experiential, you don’t just hear, you step into it, you understand your environment in a different way”.

“It’s an unusual, modulating tone that you can’t quite place,” she added. “That’s what sets it apart from all the noise in Times Square. It slows the pace of perception.”

Mr Neuhaus told the paper that sound “doesn’t exist in time, it exists in place” and that compared to sight, sound is “a more direct channel to the unconscious”.

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