Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

extreme amplification microphone
Kropka Na Ogonie (2016) by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman, performed by Marianna Soroka © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

Microphone type and microphone placement is crucial for the amplification of musical instruments. In her works Kropka Na Ogonie (2016) and Soroka Fruwa (2016) Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman gives a fascinating example of how this microphone choice and placement can become a compositional parameter and a substantial characteristic of the work. Aurélie calls these pieces a miniature musical theatre performance in two acts: the score’s instrumentation lists a single metal wire brush as a beater and the air around the performer’s torso as the percussion membrane, amplified by microphones. In the second act the performer’s voice is added, but also here the sounds are kept in a very low amount of action: only (un)voiced breath, mouth and throat sounds of the performer are used.

Hearing and seeing this performance by Marianna Soroka reveals that the piece is not only a miniature, using a minimal amount of sonic material, but at the same time also an enormous magnification: the performance is based on the extreme amplification of very large letters, written with big gestures in the air. The most conspicuous visual and audible element of the performance are the five large microphones placed in a semi-circle around the performer.

microphone loudspeaker set up scheme amplification
Set-up scheme for Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman. © Cathy van Eck

Aurélie explained me how she developed this piece. After many years of working a lot with voice and speech, as a radio producer and a vocalist, she decided to integrate voice and speech in her work as a composer. In the talking drum from West Africa she found an instrument that had a similar relation to sound as the human voice has: it communicates (a kind of) language through sound. At times the drum even appears to sound like human speech, but it can also produce abstract sound and therefore function in a rather musical context. The talking drum was the quickest way to communicate before the invention of western telegraphy, since messages transmitted by talking drums travel with a speed of 160 kilometers per hour. The talking drum is traditionally played with a wooden beater, but Aurélie tried out not only the traditional beater, but all kinds of other ones. Using a jazz brush to play a talking drum is—as she mentions herself—quite weird. But while doing this she remarked that all sounds produced by the brush in the air before hitting the drum skin were even more interesting than the sound of hitting the drum. This is how her work on two new pieces for a single brush and hyper amplification— Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa—started. The piece for talking drum became Tele Drumming (2016), a piece for percussionist “talking” through the drum, a text video and a recording of a Skype conversation with her brother.

microphone amplification score
A fragment of the score for Kropka na Ogonie © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

During Kropka na Ogonie (Polish for “dot on the tail”) the performer Marianna Soroka is making big gestures in the air with the brush, writing big letters in her mother tongue Polish. There are many very specific alphabetic characters in Polish, each calling for their own unique pronunciation and orthography, often with a tail (see the score fragment above). The visual reference to writing is enhanced by using just one brush, instead of two which is common in percussion playing. The inspiration for these big gestures for drawing letters comes from graffiti and (western and oriental ) calligraphy. Aurélie translates the visible appearance of these characters directly into sound instead of leaving a visual mark.

At the start of the development of the piece the sounds made by the brush in the air were amplified simply by two microphones. Pretty soon a third one was added to create a more detailed image of the audible movements. For the final result five microphones are used. Aurélie mentions that technically speaking  two of these microphones (no. 2 and 4, see set-up scheme above) are not strictly necessary for a suitable amplification of the sounds. But as soon as she leaves them out, the percussionist will tend to move less in between the three microphones left, since we tend to perform mainly in the area in front of the mike. The microphones used can be for example Neumann 184s, DPA 2011, 4011 or also 4099, ME66 Sennheiser. Sound absorbing materials such as sound proofing panels or curtains are used for dampening the space around the percussionist. Although the performance is very quiet by nature, Aurélie asks the performer to aspire extreme dynamic contrasts at all times.

 

amplification microphone gestures
Soroka Fruwa (2016) by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman, performed by Marianna Soroka © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

 

extreme amplification microphone
A fragment of the score for Soroka Fruwa © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

The most astonishing moment in this performance for me is the difference in character between the two performances. The second part of the performance is called Soroka Fruwa, based on the Polish words “Sroka Fruwa” and a poetic way for saying “A Magpie is Fluttering” (Sroka was changed to Soroka, since the percussionist’s name is Marianna Soroka). This piece takes noises of the human child and bird wings as archetypes. When experimenting with the brush noises some of the sounds reminded Aurélie of flapping bird wings. The brush and microphone amplification is used to create a foley of these sounds evoking the flights of a night owl, a peace dove, an eagle or other birdspecies. In this second part our imagination is opened up to completely different associations, created again with mikes, brushes and gestures.

This is a documentation video of both performances, performed by Marianna Soroka:

Many thanks to Aurélie for the long conversation on her music!

112 loud-speaking telephone receivers and other early sound reinforcement systems by Ralf Ehlert

early sound reinforcement system
An early example of a sound reinforcement system: 112 loud-speaking telephone horns in New York (picture source)

The picture above was made in 1919 during the Victory Liberty Loan and the lamp-like objects hanging above the crowd are so-called loud-speaking telephone receivers. The crowd had “the unusual sensation of having spoken messages come to them out of the air” (source: Electrical Review, May 31, 1919). These 112 loud-speaking telephone receivers with large horns—in other words loudspeakers—were amplifying the speeches and making them audible for apparently a crowd of 10.000 people (my experience with numbers in these kinds of descriptions is that they might be exaggerated, but on the pictures the crowd seems at least large).

loudspeaking telephone loudspeaker 1919
One of the loud-speaking telephone receivers used in what was called then a “Public Address Telephone System” (picture source).

This early use of outside sound amplification through loudspeakers is mentioned on the website www.medienstimmen.de. This site is focusing on early sound reinforcement systems and initiated by Ralf Gerhard Ehlert. It was a vary valuable resource for obtaining information during my research on early microphone and loudspeaker technology. For that reason I would like to dedicate a post to this website, since it might be helpful and inspiring for others too. Ralf developed this website as a part of a research project on the use of sound reinforcement systems for crowds during the first half of the twentieth century. A special focus was on the use of microphones and loudspeakers during by the National Sozialism (1933-1945), since the development of early sound reinforcement systems for crowds unfortunately is strongly related to this. Most of the articles are in German, but many links point to english sources and I think the lists are also very well understandable without any German knowledge.

The website provides resources, such as lists with microphone, amplifier and loudspeaker patents till 1950, a chronology of the use of sound reinforcement system during events and an extensive bibliography. There are many different loudspeakers to discover on the website, such as all kinds of horn loudspeakers:

Horn loudspeaker 1925
A Telefunken Lautsprecher (1925) for the Vox-Maschinen A.G. in Berlin combined headphones with a horn (picture source).
schallwand loudspeaker wall
The Schallwand (loudspeaker wall) invented by Peter Grassmann in 1936 (picture source).

Other inventions discussed by Ralf Ehlert are for example the transportable  Schallwand (sound wall) of 1936 by Peter Grassmann and the different Pilzlautsprecher (mushroom loudspeakers) which diffuse their sounds in many directions. These Pilzlautsprecher were very useful in sound reinforcement systems for very large crowds. By using many of these Pilzlautsprecher placed at regular distances a large crowd could hear the amplified sound without any of the echo problems a system with directional loudspeakers has. Some examples of these problems:

The sound is heard three times by the listener H on the left picture. The right way to position the loudspeaker is depicted on the right (picture source).
Doubling effect by two loudspeaker
Also in this loudspeaker set-up the sound is heard three times by the listener H on the left picture. The right way to place the loudspeakers is depicted on the right (picture source).
The use of so-called Pilzlautsprecher solves the problems caused by mono-directional loudspeakers (picture source).

I asked Ralf if he had a favourite among all those different patents listed on his site. He told me that he finds the Improvement in Magneto-Electric Apparatus by Ernst W. Siemens (US 149797 April 14 1974) very special, since it is describing already the modern electrodynamic loudspeaker, which is then “reinvented” again during the 1920s.

When reading the patent lists my eye felt on a patent of December 20, 1924, filed 9 days after the famous Rice and Kellogg patent (DRP 631724). Remarkably this patent (CH 113262) for a radiophonischer Lautsprecher (radiophonic loudspeaker) has been filed by a woman, not surprisingly the only one on this list. The invention itself is not very spectacular; it is a kind of double  moving iron loudspeaker, using two metal membranes. This system would become obsolete as soon as the electrodynamic system as described in the Rice and Kellog patent mentioned above was established as the common way to build loudspeakers. During my research for the book I did not have time to investigate any further, but during the last few days I tried to find out who Maria Schlatter Schrag was. My search has not yet ended, and it will probably take some more time to find out why this patent was filed by a woman. I am afraid though the reason might be much more mundane than I was hoping for. As far as I know now, she has been a servant and a cook, and not the polytechnical university student I was hoping for (Zurich university was open for women already from the 1860s onwards). Her husband Rudolf Schlatter was a radio technician though, and it might be him who invented the loudspeaker, and she just filed it for some practical reason.

Maria Schlatter Schrag radiophonischer lautsprecher loudspeaker 1924
The patent for a radiophonischer Lautsprecher by Maria Schlatter Schrag, 1924.

Transduction and Acoustic Radiator by Kristen Roos

Acoustic Radiator prepared speakers electromagnetic spectrum
Acoustic Radiator by Kristen Roos. © Kristen Roos

Not only is Kristen Roos working with the frequency range audible for human beings, but also many other frequencies and vibrational phenomena are of high importance in his work. He makes different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum perceivable for human beings and often vibrations are translated from one form of appearance to another. Kristen’s work investigates what we would perceive if we had an organ similar to a radio frequency receiver. It connects us to the unseen and unheard world of all these frequencies surrounding us in everyday life. Many of these frequencies are part of the electromagnetic spectrum which  includes for example not only light but also micro-waves, X-rays and radio waves. The frequencies of this electromagnetic radiation are often very high, in the realm of terahertz or even more. By translating these frequencies into different media Kristen makes them audible, and loudspeakers play a central role in this sonification process. His installation Acoustic Radiator (2016) gives us a bewitching impression:

At the core of this installation is a WiFi router. WiFi routers periodically transmit so-called beacon frames to report the presence of a wireless network to possible receivers of that network. This is similar to how a lighthouse is sending out its light signals. The signals sent by this WiFi router are in the 2.4 GHz range. A radio frequency receiver is used to pick up these frequencies. With the help of a modular synthesizer (with a clock divider, VCA’s and ADSR’s) and audio amplifiers the signal of the router is transformed into an electric current, which is sent to three loudspeakers and a subwoofer. Another loudspeaker is placed on the table next to the WiFi router and connected directly to the RF receiver. Asking him about the function of this fourth loudspeaker, Kristen answered me that this allows the visitor to see the movements of the mechanism which is the same as the speakers that vibrate the radiators and door.

Kristen Roos Acoustic Radiator
Overview of the set-up for Acoustic Radiator.

The three other loudspeakers are also prepared with a small metal rod, attached to their dust cap (the centre part of their diaphragm). On top of the rod a piece of felt is placed. These prepared loudspeakers are placed in the space, two touching a radiator, the third one placed against a door.  Kristen made this video to explain this translation process from electromagnetic waves radiated by the WiFi routers to audible waves radiated by the loudspeakers:

The loudspeakers in this installation are used as a kind of automised percussion players, since they hit objects such as a door and radiators. But this hitting is done not by a single hit but with many vibrations, causing the radiators and door to vibrate much more variable than it would when just hit once. As Kristen explained me he decided not to use common tactile transducers (which he used for example in his work Ghost Station) but instead developed his own prepared loudspeakers. He had several reasons for this. First of all, the installation consists of all kinds of misused equipment, and therefore a misused loudspeaker seemed to be more at place than a properly used tactile transducer. Also, the making of the sound becomes clearly visible to the audience by the vibrating metal rod. Furthermore, and perhaps most significant, the sound can be more precise and subtle, since the felt-covered metal rod is able to transmit the vibrations on to a very specific small spot of the radiators and door.

prepared speaker metal rod
A loudspeaker prepared with a metal rod and felt is placed next to a radiator. © Kristen Roos
prepared loudspeaker
The third loudspeaker prepared with a metal rod and felt is placed next to a door. © Kristen Roos

For transmitting the low frequencies a subwoofer is hidden under a pile of out of use radiators. These radiators “radiate” the sonic vibrations of the subwoofer, because they will start to vibrate according to the low frequencies produced by the subwoofer.  It is through these combination of loudspeakers—the speaker connected to the RF receiver, the three placed close to radiators and door and the subwoofer—that the signal of the WiFi router is materialised into sound. The title of the installation itself is of course a reference to the old radiators used, but at the same time an acoustic radiator is also another name for a loudspeaker.

subwoofer radiator
A subwoofer is hidden under a pile of radiators. © Kristen Roos

The direct translation from imperceptible frequencies around the audience becomes even more clear by the involvement of their own personal devices radiating electromagnetic frequencies. Entering the room, they can connect their mobile phone to the WiFi router. This will result in some glitches in the sound of the installation happening due to the establishment of a new connection between router and mobile phone.

Transduction by Kristen Roos.
Transduction by Kristen Roos and Dorion Berg. © Kristen Roos & Dorion Berg

In Transduction (2001), an installation developed together with Dorion Berg vibrations are once more the point of departure. Eight towers with each a dismantled monitor, a reversed drum skin filled with water and a loudspeaker are presented in the gallery space. The original electric signal is produced by a drum machine—a Yamaha RX7—with eight different outputs. Each of the loudspeaker–drum skin–monitor towers is connected to one of these outputs of the drum machine. This electric signal is translated into two different forms of presentation: in a visual form on the monitor and as audible vibrations of a loudspeaker membrane. The loudspeaker membrane vibrations are transduced into another waveform, namely water waves. The loudspeaker membrane is connected to the reverse drum skin filled with water by a thin fishing line. In this manner, the vibrations of the speaker are picked up by the drum skin and will gently move the water in a wave pattern specific to the vibration frequency. Since the drum skin is placed directly above the monitor, the water waves break the light of the monitor. In this way the different representations of the same signal are meeting again, leaving a mysterious impression of their hidden electrical origins .

transduction dorion roos loudspeaker water drum skin
Each of the eight towers contains a loudspeaker, a monitor and in between a drum skin filled with water. © Kristen Roos and Dorion Berg.
loudspeaker water drum skin
The same electric signal is sent both to the loudspeaker and the monitor.

Loudspeakeroperas by Huba de Graaff

Huba de Graaff's opera Lautsprecher Arnolt
Several of the loudspeaker sculptures used in Huba de Graaff’s opera Lautsprecher Arnolt. © Huba de Graaff

In her opera Lautsprecher Arnolt (2004) Huba de Graaff decided to have most roles played by loudspeakers. Only the main character—the writer Arnolt Bronnen (1895-1959)—is played by a human actor, Marien Jongewaard. Arnolt himself is literally a  “loud speaker”, screaming and provoking the kinetic loudspeaker sculptures. Arnolt often changes his policitical orientation, depending of what seemed to be the most advantageous at that time, similar to how loudspeakers can reproduce all kinds of sounds and do not have to choose one direction. The loudspeaker sculptures in their turn are all humanised. They are constructed by Bart Visser and can often move and play the characters of, for example, Bertolt Brecht (a very long thin and vibrating loudspeaker), Joseph Goebbels (a long column of loudspeakers, which can grow higher and shorter)  and Arnolt Bronnen’s wife Olga Förster-Prowe (two loudspeakers in the form of a bra). The piece is set during the first half of the twentieth century. During that time the loudspeaker was developed and became suitable for mass communication and soon after used in Nazi Germany for dissemination of their propaganda.

Marien Jongewaard next to the column loudspeaker Joseph Goebbels, in its shortest form.
Marien Jongewaard next to the loudspeaker column Joseph Goebbels, in its shortest form. © Huba de Graaff
Speaker opera Goebbels
The loudspeaker column Joseph Goebbels can increase in length (compare it’s length with the picture above). © Huba de Graaff

As Huba explains in her text about loudspeakers and sound systems, she considers the loudspeaker as the real instrument of electronic music. For this reason it is essential for her that loudspeakers become moving objects on stage. In this way a physical connection between sound and movement is created and the speakers become a sound source which is moving when it is sounding (similar to instrumentalists playing their instrument). A typical example of such moving loudspeakers are the so-called AATs, an abbreviation of Addressable Audio Transducers. These are rotating loudspeakers derived from Leslie loudspeaker cabinets produced by Yamaha. Huba transformed them in such a way that their movements are controllable by MIDI. Here they speak in German on loudspeakers as instruments:

Except the often historic voice recordings and some texts by the director of the piece Erik-Ward Geerlings,  most of the sounds diffused through the loudspeakers are sounds which can not exist without loudspeakers: sine waves, all kinds of other synthesised sounds, hammond organ, electric guitar, but also the characteristic mostly unwished hum of sound amplification systems and of course acoustic feedback.

Huba de Graaff composed several other works with loudspeakers, one of them is the opera Hephaistos (1997), for 40 loudspeakers, robotspeakers, computercontrolled moving loudspeakers, three singers and computers. Also in this opera the loudspeakers are part of the scenery, as for example the singers are wearing loudspeaker heads.

loudspeaker hats Huba de Graaff
The two actresses in Huba de Graaff’s opera Hephaistos are wearing loudspeaker hats. © Huba de Graaff.

An earlier piece is Corenicken (1990). Although not called opera, this is again a large scale work, using many different sound sources and performed by Huba on violin and a percussion player. The audience is surrounded by all kinds of loudspeakers and also visual media such as small televisions. Huba herself wears her “Japon Fuzz”, a tin dress containing electronic equipment, so it can create “fuzzy” and feedback sounds in response to her movements. The piezo disks attached to the dress (see the second picture of the dress) pick up the sound of the dress. As soon as Huba approaches a loudspeaker, her amplified tin dress feedbacks with the loudspeaker:

Huba de Graaff loudspeaker dress
The “japon fuzz”, a tin dress with electronic equipment to create “fuzzy” and feedback sounds. © Huba de Graaff
dress with speakers
A close up of the Japon Fuzz, using piezo disks to pick up sound. © Huba de Graaff

There are also two rotating loudspeakers (similar to the AATs mentioned above) on stage and an enormous amount of piezo ceramic elements is hanging above the audience. Together they form three grids, containing each 256 piezo disks (a total of 768!). Huba developed a computer software to control pulse-trains send to these disks, resulting in moving soundscapes. Every piezo disk is prepared with a piece of thick aluminium foil, so it diffuses its sound louder. Wonderful clouds of small sounds are moving above the audience:

Huba de Graaff Piezo grids 768 piezo ceramic elements
Setting up for Huba de Graaff’s Corenicken: the audience is placed around the stage. Three grids containing 768 piezo disks prepared with aluminium foil are hanging above the audience. © Huba de Graaff

Huba considers stereophonic sound as used in hifi-systems for the living room or in concert hall amplification as a strange and flat reproduction of reality. Sound loses its depth and perspective when reproduced by such systems. A common P.A. system (a public address system used for sound amplification in all kinds of situations, such as concert halls, theatres, and stadiums) creates a distance between the audience and the creators. In works such as Corenicken Huba is looking for a what she calls an I.A. system (individual address), as opposed to the common P.A. system. Every audience member is surrounded in a different way by loudspeakers. And indeed each of her imaginative loudspeaker sculptures diffuses its sound in an individual way.

Huba is currently working on a new piece for the AAT loudspeakers, which will be premiered soon. I’ll keep you posted.