Music of Wires

When I was a kid there was a fairly corny ad on TV for some kind of drugs for sheep (drench) that featured farmers playing a tune on a wire fence & after a bit of a search I managed to find it on youtube, so for a bit of backstory & nostalgia check out this classic bit of New Zealand advertising from 1994:

Somehow I think the ‘creatives’ who came up with the concept for that ad might have heard of an Australian artist by the name of Alan Lamb, who has been making incredibly evocative music using lengths of steel wire as the main instrument since the 1970s. For some aeolian sound works he has used wire up to a kilometer in length (played by the wind & recorded using contact mics) while more installation type projects have involved shorter lengths played using a bow…. Heres a quote from ABC Adlib:

“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 the fundamental is well below one Hertz. Thus only the higher harmonic frequencies fall into the auditory range. The very high harmonics 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. The leads to an understanding of the vocal-like quality of wire music in which the sound is made of numerous ‘voices’, each competing for harmonic dominance.”

In this interview at Noyzelab he discusses some of his recording techniques: “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 .”

Fascinating! Here are a few audio examples from some of his work available on an album called Night Passage recorded in 1983:

Also from the same album, a piece titled ‘Meditation on Spring’ which was recorded at a festival in Kobe, Japan to commemorate the opening of the world’s largest electron accelerator. Besides producing sound by natural wind, Lamb actually “plays” this instrument by bowing it with a two-metre long bamboo bow strung with nylon. The second section has some of that vocal quality he mentioned above, the resonances almost reminding me of Tuuvan throat singing!

Another artist who has gained a reputation for creating music using wires is Alistair Galbraith, a NZ musician with a considerable history in underground music and who in 2006 was recognised as an Arts Laureate, a brilliant peer-driven awards system where artists are recognised for their long term commitment to arts. Along with artist Matt De Gennaro he has employed long wire perfomrances in site specific art galleries, working in complete darkness. In this interview from 2000 he explains a little of their modus operandi: “Performing only in darkness wakens every other sense than sight. The fact that the sound comes from all over the building rather than from the wire itself is more obvious when you’re blind. You feel inside the sound rather than peripheral to it. What we look like doesn’t matter, how we technically achieve the music is incidental, you only get the sound….. the sound of the wires is the sound of the building. It’s necessary to attach the wires at resonant, preferably hollow points in the building’s structure. We found that each of the art galleries in New Zealand sounded different. In Dunedin we installed two wires that were around a hundred feet in length, which gave us the lowest note we’ve worked with yet.”

Rather than bowing the wires, they use rosin on their hands & “we invited our audiences to play the wires at the conclusion of each performance – it certainly take a little practice to coax an even tone. It’s similar in technique to rubbing rims of wine glasses. I discover more and more strokes and pinches that call harmonics and squeals each time I play…”

For more info & videos on wire music, check out the Wired Lab

Of course sound designer Ben Burt is infamous for recording the sound of hitting guy wires back in 1976 & manipulating them to become the sound of Star Wars laser beams, check the photo in this article and also here

A while back I was out recording winds during a gusty storm and went up to the wind turbine in Brooklyn here in Wellington & managed to record these sounds using a contact mic:

Ever since then I’ve been meaning to visit another location in Wellington where there is a huge antenna with high tension guy wires that are easily accessible… sounds like a mission for after we finish this mix!
Here’s the location I mean:

UPDATE (thanks Steve)
Music on a Long Thin Wire: Alvin Lucier Hommage at Saint-Merrier

5 thoughts on “Music of Wires

  1. moongold

    Top post as always, reminded me of ‘The great Fences of Australia’ by Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor which I got hold of a couple of years ago and which still intrigues, check it out:
    Less on the mathematical structure and more on the noise I guess but with the added bonus of great packaging complete with fence locations and a bit of old barbed wire!

  2. Douglas Murray

    This is a great post. I’d love to hear a 3D reproduction of the three pickups mentioned by Alan Lamb in those quotes. I guess that’s a recording project for the future.

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