Vol. 41 Issue 4 Reviews

Cathy van Eck: Between Air and Electricity: Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instruments

Hardcover, 2017, New York City and London: Bloomsbury Academic, www.bloomsbury.com. Audio and video examples from the book are available at: http://microphonesandloudspeakers.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Book CoverCathy van Eck’s book Between Air and Electricity: Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instruments, an expansion of her 2013 doctoral thesis, is devoted to a marginal subject of electroacoustic practice. She studies how devices that convert sound waves into and from electricity, namely microphones and loudspeakers, are utilized. At first glance, it might not seem that this topic would yield a wealth of information. But the author managed to fill 170 pages with convincing displays of research and scholarship, building her text with various interrelated arguments. After reading this book you will be convinced that microphones and loudspeakers are not marginal components of artistic practice, or merely transparent transducers, but essential ingredients central to many compositions created in the past 60 years.

Van Eck discusses her subject matter through the lens of a four-part approach involving reproducing, supporting, generating, and interacting roles. This structure, utilized throughout the book, provides coherence and context to her arguments. Since the 1950s, when loudspeakers and microphones began to take on expanded roles in the creation of new music, composers utilized them to realize new musical possibilities. From the first chapter onward, van Eck explores the question of whether microphones and loudspeakers can be considered as musical instruments, in addition to their sound reproduction capabilities. In each chapter she provisionally answers this question from different perspectives, taking into account a widening swath of information that is used to reshape the question.

One of the most informative aspects of this book is its citation, and discussion of, documents and patents published many decades ago. The author does this to bolster her arguments about the history and purpose of microphones and loudspeakers. This approach in itself is an enlightening way of grounding her theory using historical precedents. Furthermore, it demonstrates just how progressive and forward thinking certain historical figures were, such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Van Eck points out that “producers of early sound reproduction technologies tried to convince their audiences that their new devices… were nothing other than musical instruments” (p. 30). The book shows several contemporaneous advertisements that attempted to convince potential customers that their phonographs or radios were instruments, easy to play and a lot less expensive than, say, the piano.

In favor of the view of microphones and loudspeakers as instruments the author cites the historically important work of ethnomusicologist Erich von Hornbostel and theorist Hugo Riemann, who defined musical instruments in sufficiently broad ways so that, according to van Eck, microphones and loudspeakers might also be included as such in their theoretical sphere. On the other hand, Van Eck’s argument for not designating microphones and loudspeakers as musical instruments is that loudspeakers reproduce “all possible sound waves” (p. 30) not specific sounds, like musical instruments. This invisible, or transparent, character of recording technology is demonstrated in some of the earliest recording devices. The author cites advertisements from companies claiming to have produced devices that will convince the ear that the sounds they emit will be assumed by listeners to be from live sources. In these ads, ‘real’ listeners, apparently ignoring the poor sound quality and the plethora of surface noises, remarked how, upon hearing a phonograph record they thought the recorded instruments they heard were located in the same room as their phonographs. Interestingly, the reverse situation occurred in the early days of cd technology during the 1980s. We find people claiming that the music they heard on cds sounded ‘unnatural’, due to the absence of surface noise and the presence of pristine (read: unreal) sound quality.

She also mentions that the reason phonographs or radios were not considered as musical instruments was that “hardly any music was composed for the new sound devices… during the 1930s” when they were first introduced to the marketplace. So they were used to reproduce already composed music, as opposed to new music created especially for the devices themselves. There was the odd example of composers using phonographs in their work, such as Hindemith, and of course Pierre Schaeffer’s early work involved phonographs, but the vast majority of composers either didn’t know how to incorporate phonographs into their practice, or simply didn’t think of them as musical instruments. Interestingly, this was not the case with the invention of the camera.

An interesting sidebar in the author’s text, relates to acousmatic practice, involves what was known in Germany as the Koncertreform. In an effort to eradicate visual distractions, thereby providing listeners with a pure listening experience, some concert halls were designed in such as way as to hide from view the musicians on stage. Audiences familiar with this way of listening would have had no trouble adjusting to hearing loudspeakers, which effectively also hide the sources of the sounds they reproduce.

Referring to her second category, supporting, van Eck mentions that “singers no longer needed special singing techniques in order to fill a whole opera house, when their voice was amplified with the help of microphone technology” (p. 14). One of these “special singing techniques” (which she fails to mention) was vibrato, the analog version of simple frequency modulation.

Van Eck’s third approach, which she refers to as generating, pertains to music that doesn’t have any connection to extant musical instruments. The sound is produced with loudspeakers and would not exist without them. This approach began to take hold at the end of  the 1940s and into the 1950s. Dick Raaijmakers, a composer she often quotes in the book said: “the composer has become a non-instrument-bound sound organizer.” Karlheinz Stockhausen, in the 1950s, exemplified this view, arguing for a music that was free of the confines of conventional instruments. It is interesting to note that 70 years hence, conventional instruments have become seamlessly integrated into much live-interactive music involving laptops, while composers such as Helmut Lachenmann essentially exploit the ‘electronic’ characteristics of conventional acoustic instruments, calling his approach musique concréte instrumentale. We are long past the purist orthodoxies of the early 1950s, wherein a perceived dichotomy stood between musique concréte and elektronishes musik as represented by the studios in Paris and Cologne. Nevertheless, the emphasis on composing timbres directly via electronic hardware such as a computer is still a vibrant and active area of electroacoustic and computer music practice.

There is also the issue of sonic recognition in the generating approach, with the primary idea being that sound sources, or causes, should be masked or hidden. But as the author points out: “creating sounds without any association proved to be much more difficult than developing a theory about them” (p. 48). This line of thought can be traced back to the composers of so-called absolute music, who did not acknowledge any associative content in their music. According to Stockhausen, “… associations distract the listener’s mind from the autonomy of each sound world presented to him, because he is reminded of bells, organs, birds, or water-taps…” (p. 48). One wonders what exactly he meant by “the autonomy of each sound” and what he would have thought about the relatively recent popularity of using granular synthesis techniques to conjure the sounds of water droplets.

Toward the end of the second chapter, van Eck extends her analysis to cd players, stating that these devices are not to be considered as musical instruments if the only interaction with them involves the simple act of pushing the play button. With a more involved engagement, the cd player can become a musical instrument. Van Eck cites Yasunao Tone’s piece from 1986 entitled Music for Two CD Players, to illustrate this point. The American composer David Weinstein also comes to mind for his work with cd players, in which they become musical instruments. According to van Eck “by treating these devices as musical instruments, new aspects of music can be discovered.” Sounds are created from characteristics of the devices themselves. This describes her fourth approach, which she calls interacting.

After carving out her argument in the first two chapters, van Eck goes on to take a chronological step backward in order to look into the role of the tuning fork in the development of transducers. Tuning forks were used to provide standard pitches and in the hands of certain scientists were used to probe acoustic principles by using them effectively as instruments. Eventually this tuning fork ‘principle’ led to what the author calls the tympanic principle. This move from one principle to the other was evident in Alexander Graham Bell’s career trajectory.  “Bell’s concept of transmitting sound evolved from the tuning fork principle toward the tympanic principle. The many string of the piano… all resonating in response to a single frequency, are exchanged for a single membrane, able to vibrate, ideally, in response to all audible frequencies” (p. 70). This evolution demonstrates a path from what can be described as a musical instrument to the all-encompassing behavior of microphones and loudspeakers.

Chapter four focuses on the interaction of microphones with loudspeakers via movement, material, and space, focusing on the concept of feedback and how it is manifested, or explored, in a myriad of pieces from the 1960s through the present.
The author points out that the use of acoustic feedback in the 1960s, an intentional misuse of equipment, was probably due to that decade’s fostering of rebellion and dissent. Without a doubt, this chapter is one of the highlights of the book. Each cited composition is accompanied by a brief, musically relevant, analysis and further explication. Van Eck explores works by Hugh Davies, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier, Anne Wellmer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gordan Monahan, Nicolas Collins, Annea Lockwood, and many other composers. The author employs an analytical through line in which she connects works based on techniques or aesthetic concepts. Observations about one piece are reintroduced in a subsequent work’s analysis to create a context for comparison and contrast. Van Eck mixes well known works with those that are less known, but in each case she concisely explains how the distinct characters of each piece function internally, and externally, related to other similar or historically situated works.

Unfortunately, there are numerous syntactical, grammatical, and spelling mistakes throughout the book. For example, on page 164 we read the following: “For this performance, three very small loudspeakers without a diaphragm are each attached to a sheet of paper which itself functions as a diaphragm. Their material is piezo ceramic and the can also be used as contact microphones.” In addition to grammatical errors there are also factual errors. Writing about the current situation, at the end of chapter five, the author states “wireless loudspeakers are not yet very common,” a statement that requires correction and re-examination in light of the current popularity of wireless Bluetooth speakers.

Since the text once stood as the author’s dissertation it might have been assumed that the wording was sufficiently vetted. Unfortunately, this is not the case. But this relatively mild distraction from the primary positive attributes does not diminish the book’s accomplishments or unique focus.

This book includes a companion website in which recordings of many of the pieces found throughout the text are included and a useful appendix, containing brief biographies about the composers, performers, or notable figures mentioned in the text. These biogrpahies are mostly limited to one to two sentences about the person cited, which seems like an overly Draconian and arbitrary limitation. Even simply adding a few extra words stating the country of origin for each person would have been very useful. The absurdity of the miniature biography is brought to the fore when we consider someone such as Stockhausen, whose career cannot be summed up in a two-sentence soundbite.

Early on in the book van Eck states that she does not intend on discussing and comparing various technical aspects of microphones and loudspeakers, but this discussion would have added to her proposition about the transparency of these devices. For example, including a little more detail about specific types and models of microphones would have shown how each ‘colors’ sound by emphasizing certain frequencies or formants. This is simply a more complex version of listeners ignoring surface noise from records, or tape hiss.

In short, although this book suffers from lack of editorial oversight, it does manage to convincingly present valuable information about a relatively untapped topic, within a succinct, well-researched text.