Between Air and Electricity: Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instruments - Cathy van Eck. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


by Caleb Kelly

Cathy van Eck has written a book about two ubiquitous technologies, the microphone and the speaker, but in the way the best research projects develop, she has taken something we took for granted and produced a book that forwards a new reading of something so familiar. Van Eck’s Between Air and Electricity seeks to draw our attention to these usually invisible and discrete technologies and looks to the plethora of music makers who have used them as the instruments for their compositions.

Within art and music, it is usual to imagine microphones and speakers as being invisible and transparent technologies. In my experience, speakers and their containment within black boxes provide all sorts of visual problems for the contemporary art gallery. Within exhibition practices, speakers are hidden or at the very least imagined to be invisible. Thus, we find all sorts of attempts by installers to hide them. I have seen speakers installed in the ceiling, above or alongside projections, and, worst of all, placed behind the viewer (as if the audience will not notice that the action on the screen is in front of them and the sound is coming from behind). It is only when speakers are treated as part of the installation, not something to be hidden at all, that this sounding media is not so problematic. The Australian artist Marco Fusinato’s installation of a line array is perhaps an endpoint for the display of speakers within the art gallery. Here a vast speaker system, intended for stadiums or vast concert halls, is arranged in the white cube and intermittently set off to amplify white noise at 105 decibels. In this piece, the speakers are the work, and they are a massive and extremely loud presence both visually and aurally.

Image: Marco Fusinato, Aetheric Plexus (Broken X) (2013)

In keeping with the desired invisibility of the speaker within exhibition space, it is common to think about and understand the microphone and loudspeaker as technologies that should develop towards complete transparency. That is, in the best possible world we would not know that we are listening to recorded and reproduced sound; the quality of the reproduction is so good that the speaker technology is indiscernible. There have been many criticisms of this approach, including by myself specifically within Cracked Media. Van Eck argues that this desire is for a technology that doesn’t itself make sounds, nor color the sound it reproduces, would lead to there being no difference between listening to a concert in a concert hall or listening to the same performance from the lounge chair within your living room. Of course, the examples that amply illustrate Van Eck’s conceptualizations go against this concept as the microphone and the speaker are both the sound makers and the sound players.

There is much to like about Between Air and Electricity, and I’ll point out a few examples here. I am drawn to Van Eck’s discussion of electricity, movement, and sound in chapter two, entitled “Four Approaches Towards Microphones and Loudspeakers.” The analysis of the shift from non-electrical reproduction technologies, such as the phonograph, to technologies that employ electricity is engaging and insightful. Van Eck points out that while the original phonographic technologies were mechanical, the employment of electricity improved many of the disadvantages of the early forms of the technology. Sound transduced into an electrical signal and finally back into sound waves made available various changes that could be made between the recording and its reproduction, and, as we read later in the text, it is this air between the microphone and the speaker that is generative.

Chapter 3, “The Sound of Microphones and Loudspeakers,” asks a particularly novel question as normally we would say we want these technologies not to have their own sound. We might think of speaker hum as being inherent to the system, but that is not what Van Eck is getting at here. She asks, “what kind of sound can be produced by microphone and loudspeakers?” (55). The chapter has somewhat of a technical bent with discussions of Helmholtz and Alexander Bell (among others), and its discussion of tuning forks is novel, setting the scene for the following case studies. She argues, “microphones and loudspeakers are located in between air pressure waves and something else. This something else is usually an electrical signal, so microphones and loudspeakers could be regarded as being between air and electricity” (16).

As would be expected, any research into the microphone and loudspeakers must center on feedback as feedback is a constant in experimental approaches to sound making. Van Eck points to the purposeful misuse of the equipment to allow for feedback in the 1960s as an expression of the time. She explains, “it is through this ‘misuse’ that the microphone, amplifier and loudspeaker receive and make their own voice audible” (83).

After Van Eck sets up her argument, the book turns to a unique approach in which she discusses particular works in detail that are centered on the manipulation or misuse of microphones and speakers. This is where Van Eck comes into her own, and the combination of discussions of very well-known works such as Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I alongside lesser-known works provide a satisfying array of approaches. Each case study is illustrated with diagrams of the placement and relationship of the microphone and speakers and this in itself is fascinating.

An interesting feature of the book is a website that documents examples from the text and in an ongoing fashion adds to the book with new examples. Usually such a website feels extraneous to the main game of the book, but in this case, it gives form to the text-based analysis and keeps the project alive after its book publication. There are a lot of examples and new text on the website, and one could spend numerous hours there alone.

My one gripe is that I feel the ghosts of the PhD thesis remain a little too present within the book and I would have liked to see much of the scene setting cut back or even removed. Sections on what musical instruments are or the various roles of recording and playback form a vital literature review within a PhD but are unnecessary within an academic publication as this area has been amply covered already. This does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book as the sections which trace new areas are hugely interesting and satisfying to read. 

A final comment would be to request Bloomsbury not to use this tiny font size in the future – my spectacled eyes had great difficulty reading the text!