by Daniela Fantechi
In February 2017 Bloomsbury relesead the volume Between Air and Electricity. Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instruments, written by the belgian composer and sound artist Cathy van Eck.
The topic of the book are microphones and loudspeakers, which are observed from an interesting and peculiar point of view.
Since decades microphones and loudspeakers are an omnipresent technology in everyday life. They are designed for amplification and reproduction, according to a principle of transparency. These devices are designed to be visually and sonically transparent: their quality is measured on their level of “inaudible” impact on the sound result.
Due to this required “inaudible” quality, microphones and loudspeakers have been rarely studied for their ability to shape the sound.
The aim of this book is to sistematically explore the radical and alternative uses of these devices, starting from a central question: can microphones and loudspeakers be seen as the musical instruments of our time?
In this book there is no technical information about microphones and loudspeakers, or about the development of this technology. The focus is instead on experimenting and composing with microphones and loudspeakers, and on the related aesthetic implications.
Starting from her composer’s perspective the author observes how, in the hands of sound artists and composers, microphones and loudspeakers have been changing the traditional definition of musical instrument and the relationships between performative gesture and sound. One of the main aspect of a musical instrument is the direct relationship between the gesture of the musician and the sound produced by the instrument: the sound changes according to the gesture and, consequently, the musician establishes a visual communication with the audience. This kind of visual communication is not usually associated to a common use of an amplification system, due to the importance of the sonically transparent quality mentioned above, but it is instead extremely present in many works where microphones and loudspeakers are crucial for the musical performance, sometimes directly acting as sound generators.
In the first chapters Cathy van Eck contextualizes and examines, also from an historical point of view, the diffusion of microphones and loudspeakers in the musical creation.
Starting from the first phonographs and from the first experiments on sound, the authour speaks about the researches on sound reproduction and amplification by Hermann von Helmholtz and Alexander Bell, and she considers how the development of these technologies has radically changed the aesthetic of listening during the 20th Century.
In order to be able to analyse and to compare different musical situations where microphones and loudspeakers have been used, the author indicates four categories, which resume the use of these devices: reproducing, supporting, generating, interacting.
The first category is referred to the possibility to reproduce all music through any kind of sound system. Microphones and loudspeakers are designed to be transparent devices, able to make and reproduce high fidelity recordings, which should give back the impression of the live performance.
The second category is referred to the function of amplification: through the electricity microphones and loudspeakers can add volume to the instruments, making them more resonating, without changing other features of the original sound, again through a transparent system which does not add any other sound to the original one.
Generating is the third category, which could be seen as a first step towards the emancipation from the idea of reproducing or supporting existing sounds. The focus is here on the pure sound of an electrical signal and on all the musical world which could exist just thanks to the transition through microphones and loudspeakers.
The fourth category, interacting, is referred to the possibility to consider microphones and loudspeakers as real instruments, not just as passive devices, which should accurately reproduce and support other sounds, but as sound generators themselves. The different possibilities of interacting with the physical and mechanical features of microphones and loudspeakers used to shape the sound, are observed from the perspective of the relationship between the musician and his/her own instrument.
After outlining the historical context and after pointing out these categories to approach the amplified sound, the focus is moved on the examples taken from the artistical praxis. Cathy van Eck explains the work of different sound-artists and composers who have used microphones and loudspeakers as the main idea behind their musical processes. Using the four categories mentioned above Cathy van Eck follows the evolution of this research, investigating the space between air and electricity, which has attracted many composers and musicians, starting from Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hugh Davies, Alvin Lucier and many others, until today.
The idea of this work comes from a first collaboration between Cathy van Eck and Wolfgang Heiniger in Berlin. The author has than developed it during her PhD, within the program docARTES at the Orpheus Institut in Ghent. Some books by Pierre Schaeffer, Simon Emmerson, Trevor Wishart, Nicolas Collins , have been inspiring for Cathy van Eck’s research, as well as the possibility to exchange ideas and experimenting with many different artists, as Andrea Neumann, Ute Wassermann, Annea Lockwood, Valerina Maly, Paul Craenen, Kirsten Reese, Lara Stanic, Anne Wellmer, Birgit Ulher. These collaborations make this research extremely lively and rich and they are documented by many audio examples that comes with the book, at this link: http://microphonesandloudspeakers.com
 Collins, Nicolas, Handmade electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, London, Routledge, 2009.
Emmerson, Simon (ed.), The Language of Electroacoustic Music, Basingstoke, Macmillian, 1986
Emmerson, Simon, Living Electronic Music, Farnham, Ashgate, 2007.
Schaeffer, Pierre, Traité des objets musicaux – Essai interdisciplines, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1966.
Schaeffer, Pierre, Solfege De L’objets Sonore, Paris, ina GRM/Les Éditions de Dreslincourt, 2005.
Wishart, Trevor, On sonic Art, London, Routledge, 1996.