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:

Signal and Noise: Clock

The Signal and Noise playlist continues into 2017. At #52 we have a recording of a 19th Century clock made by the Spanish clockmaker José Rodríguez Losada.

Photography: Credit of The Foundling Museum, London (c) • Special thanks to Alison Duke for providing me with this information.

Sound library now available

Pulsing pistons, creaking cogs, bright hisses, funnel blasts and evolving mechanical rhythms, the Traction Steam Engines sound library is a collection of engine sounds straight out of the industrial age.

John Cohen and I have finally completed our Traction Steam Engines sound library. It's now available online at Sonnis. More information about the library at the earquirks homepage.

Multiphonic Garbage Truck

I recently setup a playlist of short sound and music excerpts from past and present projects called Signal and Noise. An online home of sorts for sonic odds and ends recovered from the digital archives.

The latest upload is an excerpt from a recording I made in London in 2015 of a crazy free-jazz overblowing garbage truck in West London. Somewhere between the sound of the 1954 Godzilla and the outer-planetary sax explorations of Pharoah Sanders.

Steam Engines

Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor. In the pounding atmosphere of great cities as well as in the formely silence countryside, machines creat today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion. [Art of Noise, 1913 - Luigi Russolo]

Every once in awhile I'm able to flee the isolation of the studio and venture out into the real world in search of new noises. Last week was one such an occasion when sound designer John Cohen and myself travelled to Wanborough village just outside Swindon to record the sounds of several Victorian and Edwardian-era traction engines. We managed to capture a whole range of hisses, creaks, clangs and chugging mechanical rhythms that would have made Russolo proud - a soundscape of an altogether more industrial age.

Many thanks to Colin Hatch at Hatch Heritage and Steam Engineers for allowing us to record these fascinating machines.

 John Cohen excavating the sonic innards of a traction engine

John Cohen excavating the sonic innards of a traction engine