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  • Between Air and Electricity: Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instrumentsby Cathy van Eck
  • Ross Feller Gambier
Cathy van Eck: Between Air and Electricity: Microphones and Loudspeakers as Musical Instruments
Hardcover, 2017, New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, Audio and video examples from the book are available at:

Cathy 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 used 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 their own right, 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 [End Page 85]an enlightening way of grounding her theory using historical precedents. Furthermore, it demonstrates just how progressive and forward-thinking certain historical figures, such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, were. 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) rather than 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 compact disc technology during the 1980s. We find people claiming that the music they heard on CDs sounded "unnatural" because of 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. They were thus used to reproduce...


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