The Original Microphone (Liner Notes for “Sad Songs for Cell Phones”)

realization of Bourseul's idea

The microphone as we know it – a device for turning acoustic vibrations into electrical signals – was first conceived in the 1850s, when Charles Bourseul described its application to making the voice audible at distance.  What Bourseul described was a telephone, and the component we call the microphone was intended to pick up the sounds of speech so they could be reproduced at the same time in another place.  The component acquired the name microphone, however, thanks to David Edward Hughes, who in 1878 showed that it could be used to make quiet sounds louder – an application he demonstrated upon the footsteps of a fly.  This way of conceiving the microphone – as a device for listening in on the tiny or hidden – predated electroacoustics.  In 1827, Charles Wheatstone, unaware of the stethoscope invented some fifteen years earlier, reinvented the device but gave it the more appropriate name “microphone.”  Over a hundred years before that, in 1684, the clergyman Narcissus Marsh observed that the ear trumpet should rightly be called a “microphone” on analogy with the “microscope”: it was an acoustical magnifier – a device one put to one’s ear in order to perceive sounds that would otherwise remain inaudible.  The microphone, in this sense, was not a device for transmitting one’s voice, but for extending one’s hearing.

Listening to Sad Songs for Cell Phones, we can experience the microphone in its original sense.  Though recorded by the microphone built into a cell phone, the songs were not sung to be heard at a distance.  The microphone is instead the device that allows us to hear – the ear trumpet we’ve turned upon a hitherto inaudible phenomenon.  We are not there in the room where these songs were sung, but the microphone – the technological extension of our hearing – is.  This is what we can experience in the lo-fidelity of these recordings, and in the monoaural listening they invite.

Further Listening: The Wiggly Tendrils, Sad Songs for Cell Phones (stream or download)

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