Alan Lamb

Alan Lamb Perth-based composer and biomedical research scientist Alan Lamb has originated a body of innovative composition based on the resonance of `singing wires'. Born in 1944 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Lamb had little early formal musical education other than join ing a secondary school choir and learning the piano privately from age 8 to 17. He spent his childhood in the countryside near the village of Dunning in Perthshire, under the care of a nanny he called `My' and to whom he owes his first awareness of `wire music'. On walks into Dunning with the five-year-old Lamb she would put her ear to the telephone poles to "hear the sound the world made". He remembers hearing a faint hum, but it was only years later, Lamb says, that he understood "the deep truth" of her claim.

He believes this experience must have impressed him profoundly, as he recalls a recurring dream, which he first had before his family left Scotland in 1951, in which the sound of a beautiful and sustained major sixth emanated from a train which descended distant hills and then ran through the air above where he was standing. He now feels "with the same feeling of inexorable fate" that the dream has been explicated by his life, and that the train was a symbol of his music.

When Lamb was six his family emigrated to Australia, settling in Peppermint Grove, a suburb of Perth. The move was motivated by his father, a doctor who could not tolerate the newly-introduced national health service in the UK. Lamb studied at the Guilford Grammar school in Perth (obtaining a credit in his matriculation music exams). In 1968 he graduated in medicine from the University of Western Australia and, a year later, travelled through the Asian subcontinent from Singapore to Pakistan, then eventually back to Edinburgh in 1971. After deciding between various branches of clinical medicine, he embarked in 1972 on a research career into the formation of the brain's neural circuits. He obtained a PhD in physiology at the University of Edinburgh in 1975.

After seeing an international exhibition of kinetic art at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1971, Lamb also became interested in sculpture and devised a piece based on the idea of light diffracted through flowing water. This gave rise to the notion that every movement of the artwork should be associated with an accompanying sound. He began to experiment with ways of producing sounds which held the equivalent dynamic complexity of form and structure as the images owned by the sculptu re. He also required the piece to possess aesthetic qualities - such as freedom, coherence and beauty.

Recalling his early childhood memories of resonating wires, in 1974 he constructed numerous devices designed to amplify the upper harmonics inherent in nylon and catgut threads, using the environmental variations of the room - temperature, light a nd air currents - to select the harmonic complexes. Finally, he hit upon the idea of using wires suspended in magnetic fields and of `strumming' them using pulsed electric currents. The device produced interesting sounds but there were limitations of rang e, and those imposed by technical and environmental factors.

One night in the summer of 1975, during a holiday on the island of Mull in North West Scotland, he pulled to the side of the road in his van, intending to sleep. Later, he was awoken by the sound of another major sixth, but this time it was not a dream. He had stopped beside telephone wires which sang throughout the night, the sound waxing and waning with the wind. There were fascinating structures of ever-changing rhythm and harmony, giving rise to melodies which unfolded until dawn. Hearing the wires sing Lamb felt emotionally transported and became determined to record and play their music.

Later, in 1985, Lamb returned to Australia to take up a Senior Research Fellowship and to pursue postgraduate research into neural circuitry at the University of WA. He settled in Fremantle, where he now lives. Although his medical and scientific career progressed, he felt deeply frustrated in his attempts, before leaving Scotland, to record the wire music. Low winds and problems with microphones and machines meant the cassettes he brought to Australia only contained a few ghostly hums buried in noise. Worse still, he discovered the wires in the country around Perth did not sing because they were sheathed to prevent metal fatigue, which was caused by the same vibrations that produced the music.

A breakthrough occurred in 1976 when Lamb visited his sister and her husband at `Faraway', their farm near the Fitzgerald National Park in the Great Southern Region of WA. In the vast landscapes of the area, one becomes very aware of plains, sky, wind and seemingly limitless space. Running along the farm boundary, Lamb found a half-mile stretch of abandoned telephone wires: 12 poles and six wires, all intact and unsheathed... and all singing softly in the wind. They ran north-south, the best po ssible orientation for the prevailing east wind. Lamb was able to buy them for $10; and thus began Lamb's Faraway Wind Organ project.

More than 10 years later, in 1986, the farm is vacant, the poles are falling over and the wires have succumbed to lightning and rust. But in the intervening years Lamb - while working towards his aesthetic ideals - has learned to record the singing wires and compose music with them, in accord with the natural forces which produced the music.

Typically, prior to composing, Lamb will spend a few days or up to several weeks recording, sometimes amassing up to 40 hours of tape or even recording almost continuously for more than 24 hours. At these times, he becomes aware of correspondences between the sounds and cyclic changes brought on by day and night, the weather and the seasons.

From his pool of raw material he chooses sounds for compositions. This involves a prior stage of cataloguing and memorising. Sounds are classified according to pitch, rhythm, timbre, predominant key structure and emotional color. Details of accidental sounds such as percussive impacts, squeaks and so on are noted. Lamb gradually memorises their general structure, then reflects upon and mentally re-arranges sections until compositional ideas begin to emerge. In general, these tend to disclose certain temporal and harmonic orders suggested by the recordings.

Finally, the ideas are realised using multi-channel tape, then modified until an optimum form crystallises. The entire process may take a few months or more than a year to reach completion. Even so, Lamb often revises or discards compositions.

He is sure other compositional approaches are possible, and believes he has only exhausted a fraction of the possibilities. Wire music, he believes, has an infinite range - at least equal to that of the piano.

Anything that touches or strikes the wire gives rise to a percussive sound, and the natural percussive rhythms he records are often more interesting than any he is able to contrive. The most frequent events are collisions of insects with the wires , which produce a characteristic ping, and heavier sounds of birds landing and moving about on the wires or poles. Bird song can also be transmitted into the wire through the birds' feet.

An important acoustic effect arises from movements of the wires in the insulators. Longitudinal slipping causes mighty booms while rotational movements produce high-pitched squeaks of great acoustic purity. These effects can be elicited with some degree of control by pulling on the wires. This also causes creaking in the crossarms and their supports which are transmitted into the wire. For example, as in the piece Night Passage (1985/1986).

One of Lamb's favorite devices is to make gongs and flutes from short pieces of wire and from wooden and metal rods and tubes, and hang them by strings from the wires. When activated by the wind, many different kinds of sounds and rhythms are transmitted into the wires. The strings themselves also create a distinctive sound. When the wind makes them sing in a pitch which resonates with one of the wire frequencies, a sound like Pan's pipes is heard. For example, as in the the piece Beauty (1984, revised 1986) and Skysong (1985).

One of the most important `accidental' sounds arises when an object is placed so it knocks the wire on each oscillation of its vibration. This can occur naturally, as when the amplitude of vibration becomes so great that the wire knocks on the ins ulator itself, or the knocking can be deliberately introduced; for example, by bringing the thumbnail or the ball of the finger in contact with the vibrating wire. This sounds like the blast of a trumpet in one of the dominant singing pitches. For example, as in the climax of Night Passage.

The vast repertoire of possible sounds means the wind organ can be regarded as a giant and extremely versatile musical instrument. However, it differs from most others in that complete control of the sound is not possible. Nor is it possible to be certain, in advance, of the precise sound any given action may cause. Because of this, Lamb stresses the need for players to enter a "state of wholeness" with both the instrument and the environmental conditions, so they are able to become part of `nature' as it acts upon the wires.

Primal Image (1982, revised 1984) was his first successful composition. Recorded on the Faraway Wind Organ in 1981, the title refers to the ability of wire music to evoke mental imagery; to the elemental intersection of the hard wire with the soft space it inhabits and to the shape of the vibrating wire, which illustrates a dance of polar opposites. The piece was first broadcast on radio 2MBSFM in Sydney in 1985, then on the ABC Surface Tension program in 1986.

Like The Last Anzac (1984) and Night Passage this piece has an intensely emotional and almost mystical meaning for the composer, and is meant to mirror an inner mythic or meditative progression; in the composer's words, "a journey of the soul". Night Passage was first performed at the Fremantle Art Gallery in 1986; and an instrumentally extended version was later featured at the Pipeline ensemble concerts in Melbourne in 1987, with Simone de Haan (trombone) and Daryl Pratt (percussion).

Lamb has also collaborated with artists and other composers, most notably with Sarah Hopkins. Their Skysong, for singing wires, voice and cello was first performed at the Soundworks festival in Perth in 1985. In 1986 the piece was used by choreographer Beth Shelton of Danceworks in a touring performance of a dance piece called One Meets Two Parts. Another Lamb and Hopkins collaboration, The Winds Of Heaven (1986) was an improvisation recorded at the Pole Farm Wire Music Installation at the Darwin Institute of Technology. Lamb and Hopkins discovered that the hollow steel pipes supporting the wires were good resonators and able to carry the sound of the human voice up into the wires, causing modulation and echo effects. At the time the piece was recorded, Hopkins was just `warming up', with the wind blowing parallel to the wires. This prevented the wires from singing, but provided a favorable accompaniment to Hopkin's voice. Lamb began recording without her knowing. The result was so good, the only additional work required was to simply name the piece.

The creative rapport and collaboration with Hopkins, which began in 1984, was of particular importance to Lamb as the two shared a common interest in natural harmonics, and Hopkins' instrumentation - `whirlies', extended cello and harmonic cello - was highly compatible with wire music. Hopkins was also among the first to share Lamb's perception of wire music as an integrated and coherent form in its own right (and not just a source of atmospheric sound effects).

Another Lamb collaboration, Mirages (1986), was composed to accompany a video sculpture, Time Mirages, by NSW-based sculptor Joan Brassil, which was exhibited at the Roslyn Oxley gallery in Sydney in the same year. The Music was al so broadcast on the ABC Surface Tension program.

Beauty, a solo Lamb piece, was first performed at the Soundworks Festival in Perth in 1985. It was recorded on the Faraway Wind Organ in one hour on the morning of May 2 1983, when wind conditions were exceptionally capricious. The wind had an unusual effect on a piece of string Lamb had tied between one of the wires and a post. The harmonic notes of the string were much more melodious and sustained than usual, weaving some exceptional melodies. By manipulating the tension in the wires, he was able to arrange them to sing in complementary pitches and harmonies. The piece is like a meandering improvisation between its several parts and has less of the emotional intensity of other of Lamb's works.

Lamb's recent work includes a further three-way collaboration with Sarah Hopkins and Beth Shelton, in which the aim is to produce a complete program of pieces that will cohere into a single, large-scale and unified work of dance and music.

This involves finding ways to play and accompany the wires in real time, without using recorded material. It further requires a completely new compositional method; an improvisational one. The piece Winds Of Heaven may point the way to a new musical direction for Lamb, where voice and other sounds may be transmitted directly to the wires through sounding boards.

Lamb believes it possible to construct wind organs that are capable both of being played by several musicians and of resonating sympathetically with a variety of voices and instruments. It may also be possible to derive a collective musical expres sion independent of individual control which is directed by the composite musical pattern of those taking part, in unison with natural forces.

However, Lamb would prefer a `transtemporal' structure to order the outcome. The way to achieve this in the case of collectively improvised wire music will involve computer-assisted storage, recall and mixing and the incorporation of the newest communications and information technologies. Lamb set this daunting project in motion late in 1987 by organising the construction of a new wind organ at Murdoch University in Perth. Other musicians, such as Simone de Haan and Daryl Pratt, have lent preparatory support, while sculptors Joan Brassil and Chris Constable have also recognised the sculptural potentials of an advanced wind organ.

Lamb's progress so far, and in the future, involves an understanding of the physics of wire music. For the technically minded, his own succinct explanation follows:

"The principals of aeolian vibration are relatively easy to understand, although there is as yet no satisfactory mathematical description, owing to the emergence of complex functions resulting from neighborhood interactions along the length of the wire. These are also responsible for the great diversity and complexity of harmony, timbre and rhythm.

"To understand the physics, it is best to think of the wire as an elongated cylinder. Anyone who has observed the ripples around a vertical stick held in a running stream of water will understand that a cylinder placed transversely in a laminar fluid current sets up an upstream standing wave which is transmitted to the cylinder as a vibration. The wavelength and frequency of the standing wave are determined by the diameter of the cylinder, and by the current velocity. Turbulence prevents the formation of standing waves. The same principle applies to wires vibrating in wind; hence some types of wind do not produce singing (for example, ones that are thermally generated). The standing waves are not sine waves but complex, being composed of a fundamental combined with a harmonic series. Thus the standing wave is a harmonic complex some of whose Fourier frequencies will resonate with natural frequencies of the wire and cause it to vibrate in a distinctly harmonic pattern. The natural frequencies of the wire are determined by the integer harmonics of the fundamental. In very long wires such as telephone wires, which are also very thick (three millimeters), the fundamental is well below one Hertz (1 Hz). Thus only the higher harmonic frequencies fall in to the auditory range. The very high harmonics (for example 250 Hz and above) become so crowded they cease to have discrete frequencies but rather tend to beat together, creating second-order frequencies of lower pitch. In effect the relationships to the fundamental are lost and it becomes more useful to consider the length of the wire as a family of interacting segments each with its own fundamental within the auditory range. This leads to an understanding of the choir-like quality of wire music (such as in the Angels' Choir section of Sky Song) in which the sound is made up of numerous `voices', each competing for harmonic dominance.

"Dominant harmonic patterns become established by the combination of segments into coherent `eigenvalue' frequencies (that is, possible frequencies under a given set of conditions of wind and wire) which give rise to great crescendos up to 120 decibels or more in dynamic range. Conversely, as coherence is lost following wind shifts and tension changes (as mentioned below), decrescendos are heard while new coherent patterns start to emerge. The same principles are in operation to produce high-order low-frequency beats which generate an equivalent complexity of rhythm and pulsation. It is of great interest to me as a biological scientist that these principles have much in common conceptually with those underlying the generation of coherent patterns in biological systems (for example, in the development of the body plan of the embryo and in the function of the brain). This, one assumes, is why wire music sounds organic, and perhaps why it resonates so deeply with one's emotional being. Similar principles are to be found in many other natural systems, and it is probably not too far-fetched to suggest that wire music is an aural embodiment of some of the most fundamental dynamic laws of the universe.

"In the classical physics of vibrating strings, tension is of paramount importance to the frequency of vibration. However, in the case of very long wires, the static tension has little effect on the pitch. This can be traced to the observation that the very high harmonics are not distinctly related to the fundamental, but rather are closely correlated with wind speed and wire diameter. Nevertheless, during changes of tension there is a short period when the established harmonic complex is transposed by the same ratio as the fundamental, but since the new frequencies no longer belong to the eigenvalue set of the wind/wire system, it does not continue to sing at the new pitch, but rather the complex is replaced by the former pitches building up again from zero. The musical effect of these transitions is quite extraordinary and probably has no parallel in any other musical instrument including computer-activated ensembles.

"Tension changes can, with practice, be used to create all kinds of musical effects at will (such as those which produce the climax of Last Anzac), or to produce the subtlest changes of timbre as, for example, in the long floating notes (E and F) in Mirages. Rhythmic tension changes can also be used, and these give rise to a whole new order of rhythmic percussive effects as, for example, in the opening section of Night Passage, when a climax sounds in B. An interesting tension effect can also be heard when the sun is obscured by fast- moving clouds, causing temperature-dependent changes in tension.

"A number of factors related to the physics make recording wire music a major technological challenge. Notably, the frequencies generated range from the subsonic (less than 20 Hz) to the supersonic (more than 20 KHz) and the dynamic range extends from the sound of a walking fly to amplitudes exceeding the diameter of the wire (approximately 120 to 130 dB range).

"There is not space to describe recording techniques in detail. I use ceramic piezo-electric elements from record player cartridges and fix them directly onto the wires. The method of fixing them is an art in itself and there is no single best met hod. Rather, different conditions require different methods, which are established by trial and error. The object is to obtain a satisfactory frequency response right across the auditory spectrum, and this usually requires one or more stages of filtering, equalisation and amplification before the signal is fed into the tape recorder. The ceramic elements are very small and do not appreciably affect the wire's vibration, nor do they present a large profile to the wind, thus wind interference is kept to a minimum.

"The placement of the elements is very important, as is clear from a further look at the physics. The vibrations of most interest are generated in the transverse plane of the wire. These are not simply `back and forth' vibrations but planar ones characteristically describing circles, elipses and higher order paths which can be reduced to two vectors in the orthogonal transverse axes. Thus two elements placed at right angles around the circumference of the wire will transduce each vector more or less independently. When the output of each is sent to the right and left ears the sounds are perceived as being generated along the right-left axis, in the same way as stereo music from audio equipment. However, with the vibrating wire, it is possible to go further. By separating the elements about a meter along the length of the wire, the phase separations of the longitudinal component of the vibrations can be detected and these are perceived along a depth axis; that is, near to far. Other more subtle effects also contribute to an illusion of depth and height. Thus, by placing the elements correctly, it is possible to generate a three- dimensional stereo-acoustic image of such fidelity that the music sounds as if it is filling the greatest of concert halls ."


Burke and Wills, (Film), Director Graeme Clifford, Musical Director Peter Schulthorpe, Producer Hoyts Edgley, 1985.

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