Some thoughts on sound, world and understanding

"Any understanding has its being in an act of understanding" (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, p.118-19)

Alan Lamb is a sound artist and scientist who for the past 30-years has been exploring the vibrating properties of long telegraph wires. I recently acquired a copy of his Primal Image release from 1995 that captures the beautifully evolving textures of long wires in Australia. His engagement with the physical world seems to me to nourish a fascination for the mystery of sound in nature, that invigorates his scientific and artistic activities with purpose and meaning. This spirit clearly comes across in this excerpt from a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary with sound recordist Christ Watson:

Primal Image is a stunning set of recordings that documents only a small portion of Lamb's ongoing sonic explorations. Aside from the sheer beauty of the listening experience, what greatly interests me with Lamb is how he encounters the world through sound. How the world is disclosed through his engagement with it in his particular practice.

Jerry Thompson worked as Walker Evans' principal assistant from 1973 to Evans' death in 1975. In 2016 he released a small book called Why Photography Matters. The following few extracts are striking in that they are applicable to sound and sound recording technology:

"Fox Talbot, and the cohort including Evans and Cartier-Bresson seven decades later, proposed a new kind of epistemology, a new, hitherto impossible way of learning about the world [...] The opposite of Mathema (a model projected to enable understanding), Pathema is an experience passively received: acquiescence to what is seen [...] When a pathema holds sway, the artist will no longer be Master of the Universe. He or she will be instead an attentive observer, a willing participant in, perhaps a servant of, a system larger than that artist's individual, personal, particular needs." (Jerry L. Thompson, Why Photography Matters, p.14-15)

Thompson goes on to speak about how photography is "at its best" when the inner world of the artist and the outer world of the material environment exists in balance, cooperating as in a dialectic: "one side presents a proposition, the other counters in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced alone" (p.19).

 Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Sound is an expression of space, of the physical world we are thrown into. It remains, as Lamb's work demonstrates, an expression of mystery and reverence for all that surrounds us. Bringing together Thompson's description of photography and Lamb's deep sound activities, we remind ourselves of the kind of meaning and value in work that emerges through our engagement with and in the world. A world not only made from nature, but one populated by people and all their social and creative affairs.

Often physically isolated from others in our expanding global village it's easy to neglect the importance of our worldly engagements. While convenience makes economic sense, it can at the same time weaken the sacrifice and so diminish the meaning. Consider recorded sound as one example: Commercial sound libraries provide sound editors access to a vast array of high quality recordings from around the world. Together with computer software, these sounds can be selected, edited and arranged to create a working soundtrack, quickly. In our anxious haste, we demote sound to the status of mere fodder. Reduced to pure utility, all preciousness is gone. All worldly engagement removed and understanding denied. This couldn't be further from the deep practices of Alan Lamb.

As practitioners of sound, passionate about all its forms and modes of sonic and musical expression, we would do well to listen to what Lamb's work teaches us about the world and the potential for our involved engagement in it. If nothing else, a trip outside every once in a while is always a good thing.

Further information about Alan Lamb: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/adlib/stories/s873159.htm