Wired for sound

Among other distinctions, the Murrumbidgee catchment is home to two sound sculptures built by Dr Alan Lamb, a Western Australian whose career has combined neurobiological research, medicine, art and music.

Most recently Lamb has been working in Muttama, outside Cootamundra, where he has designed a massive aeolian harp with stretches of high-tensile wire up to 300 metres long.

In 2004, Lamb worked with Scott Baker to build a smaller aeolian harp of around 50 metres in length at ’Pindari’ outside Wagga Wagga, where he worked with the present author in 2006 for the Wagga Space Program’s Unsound festival - see the video below.

Aeolian harps have a long history and were first recognised by King David when his stringed instrument was stirred by the breeze. Similarly, St Dunstan of Canterbury enjoyed the strange music produced by the wind on tightened strings (although that led to an accusation of sorcery). Aeolian harps have been widely popular in previous centuries, particularly among the Romantic poets, including Coleridge, and also among Victorian composers, such as Elgar. You can find many designs for windowsill and doorway harps, which were the styles popular in those times.

The principle behind the aeolian harp is simple: the wind blows, creating vibration on tightened strings, leading to harmonics that resonate a shifting pitch higher than that of the strings tuning. However, this simple science still creates a sense of wonder. In Victorian times superstitious types considered these sounds to be ethereal voices, possibly from those deceased.

Alan Lamb calls his large-scale aeolian harps “the wires” as they have evolved from his fascination with telegraph wires. His introduction was as a child in Scotland, when his nanny would stop and put her head to the poles to listen the “sound of the universe”. In the 1976, Lamb discovered an abandoned one-kilometre stretch of Telecom infrastructure and, after purchasing it, began experimenting. Since then he has released records, featured on soundtracks (most recently Wolf Creek) and indirectly influenced popular culture when he was contacted by the sound designers for the original Star Wars film — where the distinctive 'ping' of tapped telegraph wires was used for the sounds of laser blasters.

Alan Lamb has some interesting views on the subject of aeolian harps and has stated that “the underlying principles show commonalities with biological systems such as embryonic body plans and brain function.”

As a musical instrument, ‘the wires’ are something of an acquired taste. They are characterised by shifting patterns and have a huge range, from soft breathing sounds to high-pitched hums. They are also a bit magical, as Coleridge observed:

Methinks, it should have been impossible / Not to love all things in a World like this / Where e'en the Breezes of the simple Air / Possess the power and Spirit of Melody

My most recent work with the wires is a three-hour blend featuring breezes and bird calls: VIBRATING STRING