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online e-dition nov 22

listening to landscape & community

shannon o’neill: wired open day 2011, muttama, nsw

Alan Lamb, WIRED Open Day 2011 Alan Lamb, WIRED Open Day 2011
photo Mattias M. Morelos

The eponymous Wires are large-scale Aeolian instruments developed by West Australian artist/scientist/physician Alan Lamb, who has been exploring their potential since the 1970s, initially with found telegraph wires. At the WIRED Lab, a purpose-built collection of The Wires exists as a permanent installation on a large area of farmland. The residents of this land, artist/curator Sarah Last and artist/scientist David Burraston have been working closely with Lamb on the documentation and further development of his work, as well as opening up The Wires to exploration and collaboration with local and international artists and researchers, through regular workshops and residencies.

WIRED Open day is a biennial event that showcases both The Wires and work made with them. This year, due to inclement weather, the event was forced to relocate from the farm to nearby Muttama Hall. While it was disappointing that the audience didn’t get to experience The Wires, the community hall (established in 1925 and looking like it hadn’t changed much since) turned out to be a very suitable location for an event that was in many ways a celebration of community.

Some in the audience had in fact already experienced The Wires, including a large gathering of emerging sound artists from around Australia who had converged on the WIRED Lab for a residency over the previous week. The weather had thwarted their plans to develop a work for this event, but the performances they experienced would turn out to be a fitting masterclass.

The local community also showed great interest and the hall was soon full of a diverse range of people, including children, as well as many long-distance travelers like myself, who were bused in from the nearby town of Cootamundra. Prior to the performances we were treated to the country hospitality of a big spread provided as a fundraiser for the Cootamundra Creative Arts and Cultural Centre . While we ate and drank beer, we wandered outside the hall, where two tents containing sound installations had been set up.

The first tent contained a work by Chris Watson, the renowned UK field recordist and former member of Cabaret Voltaire. His installation was a time compression of the environmental sounds around the WIRED lab, which he had recorded over a period of 24 hours during a residency in 2009. Wet, windy atmospheres and a range of birdcalls were eventually joined by the singing of The Wires steadily increasing in intensity. More than just a beautiful soundscape, with Watson’s trademark crystal clear fidelity, this is also an excellent example of acoustic ecology, documenting the sounds of an endangered habitat. Watson was to have attended the Open Day, but was instead called to Burma to record the sound for what may be one of David Attenborough’s last documentaries.

Garry Bradbury and David Burraston, Dormative Fields, WIRED Open Day 2011 Garry Bradbury and David Burraston, Dormative Fields, WIRED Open Day 2011
photo Sofie Muceniekas
At the other tent I was met with the striking scene of people lying on deckchairs listening on headphones. This was Garry Bradbury and David Burraston’s Dormative Fields, a work made for relaxing or even sleeping to. Each chair came with a different piece of music with The Wires as source material. These works were notable for their subtle and sophisticated use of repetition and dub-like studio mixing techniques, while remaining sensitive to the organic nature of the sounds. One chair was not like the others, instead it contained a lively and amusing discussion about tartans—a lovely surprise and presumably a playful reference to Lamb’s Scottish heritage.

Back inside the hall proceedings began with a warm welcome to country from Peter Beath, who gave us illuminating insights into his family’s relationship with the area. Event organiser Sarah Last then introduced the program and Lamb’s work by playing "Last Anzac" a piece from Lamb’s 1998 CD Night Passages in order to "get our ears in." This was classic Wire music. Throbbing bass filled the hall, eventually giving way to a constantly shifting palette of metallic drones and static tones, like frozen sirens. While superficially sounding like dark ambient or industrial music, it is really just a (framed and edited) document of the sound world of The Wires.

Unlike most stringed instruments, The Wires are so long that they vibrate at a fundamental frequency well below human hearing, and therefore have closely spaced harmonics that are multiples of that very low frequency. What we hear then is the often chaotic interplay of its higher harmonics, activated and modulated by environmental phenomena and/or by human intervention. The resulting timbres and harmonies are endlessly fascinating and compelling, and remarkably dramatic—Lamb’s recordings are featured on a number of film soundtracks. "Last Anzac" is a recording of Wire music at its finest.

David Haines & Joyce Hinterding, WIRED Open Day 2011 David Haines & Joyce Hinterding, WIRED Open Day 2011
photo Sofie Muceniekas
Next up was a work by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. Well-known for their collaborative media art practice and their individual sound art practices, this was a rare duo sound performance. They each had a large hoop antenna (made from bicycle wheels) which captured the electromagnetic fields around their laptops. This source material was then fed back into the computers for processing and layering with other sounds. Whistling harmonics similar to throat singing anchored the piece as the artists waved their antennae around their equipment to find hisses, hums and crackles. Haines was particularly animated, moving around the stage to explore the other artists’ equipment, at one point even putting his antenna around Hinterding’s neck! The visual impression was of surreal rhythmic gymnastics in slow motion, but the sound was hypnotic. It wasn’t Wire music—having spent time with The Wires, the artists had found them, ironically, too electromagnetically sensitive for their purposes—but the performance had the same profound effect of opening doors to previously unheard realms.

Alan Lamb, David Burraston, WIRED Open Day 2011 Alan Lamb, David Burraston, WIRED Open Day 2011
photo Sofie Muceniekas
Above our heads, across the middle of the hall stretched a wire, anchored to the floor at its centre by a vertical wire. We moved our seats to form a circle as Lamb prepared for the next performance by tuning his instrument. He then began to play it with his Great Bow, which looks more like an archery bow than part of any stringed instrument. With it he teased out harmonics that resonated throughout the space. What might have been a literally monotonous performance was given great visual interest by Lamb’s lanky frame swaying like a tree in the wind as he played, while the sun set and the hall turned dark. Lamb’s intimate relationship with the instrument was clear as he communed with it in an almost ritualistic dance.

After an intermission Last introduced her "partner in life and art" David Burraston (aka Dave Noyze) and his array of equipment, which included two variations of another of Lamb’s inventions, a feedback generator called the Infinite Music Machine. Alongside these were a cellular automata sequencer (the subject of Burraston’s doctoral research) and sundry other electronic devices. Beginning with the air of a mad scientist giving a demonstration of his findings with little regard for aesthetics, the performance became more musically satisfying as it progressed and deeper, more complementary tones merged with the beautiful sound of rain falling on The Wires.

Delmae & William Barton, WIRED Open Day 2011 Delmae & William Barton, WIRED Open Day 2011
photo Sofie Muceniekas
For the final performance of the night, Burraston was joined by Lamb, as well as William and Delmae Barton who had been recent WIRED Lab residents. William is a master didgeridoo player and his mother Delmae an esteemed singer. As Last introduced them we learned that although Delmae had serendipitously developed her own style with the didgeridoo (generally an instrument played by men), she later learned from elders it was similar to the way some women had traditionally played it in the past.

The piece began with Lamb and Burraston at one end of the stage, mixing cavernous recordings of The Wires, sounding like a symphony stretched out beyond recognition. This lasted for several minutes before William Barton punctuated it with a series of assured yet delicate interventions from his slide didgeridoo. The reverberant swell of The Wires re-emerged, joined by birdcalls and eventually transforming into gongs and cymbals. As these receded and the didgeridoo came into its own there was an overlapping period that sounded almost Tibetan. But then Delmae began singing into her didgeridoo, a high, keening cry that was unlike anything I’d heard before. It only lasted for a minute, but by the end of it we were all in tears, knowing that we had just experienced something very special. Delmae dedicated her performance to the people of Muttama and to "all people of the world." As we walked outside under the bright stars we felt simultaneously awed and yet closer together.

The Wires can be understood as an instrument to help us tune in to the environment, to sound, and to each other. Alan Lamb deserves credit for his important work, but it is Sarah Last’s curatorial vision that is particularly deserving of praise for its powerful combination of inclusiveness and rigour. She tells me that “as much as I am curating/creating potentialities for the development of discrete projects, I am also attempting to create an experience of landscape and community. I want the experience of these projects to be powerfully subtle, seemingly organic and much like the way culture naturally evolves.” The work of Sarah Last and the WIRED Lab offers experiences through which we may better appreciate and engage with the most important questions of existence.

WIRED Open Day, October 29 2011, Muttama NSW,

Shannon O'Neill is an artist, academic and curator. He runs the website Alias Frequencies and is also assisting the WIRED Lab with it’s website.

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. web

© Shannon O'Neill; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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