The body as composer

Music without bodies only became possible thanks to electronics. The artist Cathy van Eck is active in this fascinating field.

Anja Wernicke - 2017-09-07
The body as composer -
The body as composer -
The body as composer -
The body as composer -

Can music exist without a body? For a long time it seemed unthinkable. Either the resonating body of an instrument or the human body itself was always necessary to create music. Only since the advent of electronic music has it become possible to create sounds without any body whatsoever. The artist Cathy van Eck is active in this exciting field that straddles sound, the body and electronics.

In 2015 van Eck was one of 14 nominees for the Swiss Music Prize. The jury described the core of her work as exploring "the reciprocal [musical] impact of everyday objects and people", and the "possibilities of employing loudspeakers and microphones as musical instruments". By drawing everyday objects into her creative work, Cathy van Eck also incorporates an aspect of societal critique in several of her pieces, sometimes even to the point of being bizarre or absurd.


A performative sound artist

Born in Holland in 1979, Cathy van Eck initially received a classical training in piano and oboe in the country of her birth. It early on became natural for her to bring along a little composition on a given theme to her weekly lessons. Today, her pieces no longer rely on pen-on-paper as a basis for their subsequent performance – instead, van Eck sees herself as a performative sound artist. Since 2007, she has worked as a lecturer in music and media art at the Bern University of the Arts HKB. Often, she develops concept pieces that have the character of an installation, and in which she herself performs. Or she draws the bodies of her musicians or her listeners into the performance, thereby challenging the traditional division of roles between performer, music and recipient.


Van Eck has explained her stance as follows: "My project Für Kopfhörende [For head-listeners] runs via headphones. The audience is also the performer. Instead of simply channelling music into the body through the ears, the body itself makes the music. I use sensors to register the listeners’ heartbeat, leg movements and even their head movements; an interface sends this information to the computer, where it controls the music, depending on whether or not their heart beats slower or quicker, or whether the person herself moves quicker or slower".

The body is relevant to electronic music once again

In this project, the bodies of the listeners become determining components of a co-performance. Ultimately, what you hear are the pre-composed sounds of the composer van Eck, but the speed and intensity at which they are played back are decided by the audience. Thus, every listener hears an individual performance. Cathy van Eck has returned the body to electronic music, making of it a decisive driving force. "Instead of having our body influenced by the music, our body composes the music. People often say that music needs a pulse or a rhythm. They mean a constant, easily comprehensible rhythm. I’ve simply turned that on its head".

Ensemble Tzara performing Cathy van Eck's «Backoffice».


But ensembles also commission her to write for them – such as the Ensemble Tzara. In November 2015, it performed her piece Backoffice, in which three performers with heartbeat sensors play the main roles along with the "pulse" of the financial world.


The heartbeat of an unborn child

These two projects were not the first in which Cathy van Eck integrated bodily sounds by means of contact microphones. Her work also bears obviously gender-specific traits that might be an answer to the question as to whether femininity can made a difference to the work of a composer. Thus van Eck developed her work Double Beat when she was pregnant: here, she recorded both her own heartbeat and that of her child, thus once again using a supposedly non-corporeal technology to make an organic process audible.

While these works engage with detailed aspects of the human body, earlier pieces by van Eck such as Hearing Sirens engaged with the sound of whole cities. This performance does not just look poetic – Cathy van Eck runs across various public squares with oversized funnels on her arms in which loudspeakers are installed – but the idea behind it also has a poetical intent of its own. Here, van Eck brings back to the city of Bern those sounds that have at some point in its history been banned from it – such as beating carpets or dogs barking.

With «Hearing Sirens» Cathy van Eck brought back fobidden sounds to the city of Bern.


It seems absurd to us today that such harmless sounds should once have been forbidden. But typically, it is precisely such subtle absurdities that interest her. Many of van Eck’s works also contain a grotesque or humoristic note, such as the piece Groene Ruis – for a sounding tree, a hair dryer and live electronics. For this, she prepared a small tree in a flower pot with electronics so that she can make it sound with her fingers or by blowing a hairdryer on it.

As for her use of humour, van Eck says: "I don’t use humour very consciously. Either it comes of its own accord or it doesn’t. It’s important to me, and when I notice that it’s come about, then I take pleasure in it. But the first time that I performed the piece with the plant, I was really shocked that people laughed. It had never occurred to me that it could look funny when you hold a hairdryer up against a small tree".


Van Eck’s work Cheerers & Leaders (2016), written for Lara Stanic, also has something preposterous about it. At the centre of it are silvery, glittering, cheerleader’s pom-poms. Van Eck had long toyed with the idea of producing a work on the topic of cheering. So when the performance artist Lara Stanic commissioned a new work from her, she grasped the opportunity. Stanic has one sensor on each of her upper arms, and the gestures of her cheerleader performance trigger van Eck’s pre-produced sounds – whether she lifts up her arms or shakes her pom-poms in front of her upper body.

Stanic is less concerned with emotions. She interprets the choreography of the matchstick-man drawings in the graphic score in a manner free of any theatricality. "It’s all about the sounds, not the meaning of the words. Instead of ‹Hurrah›, I could actually just shout ‹lamp› instead" – even though, strictly speaking, that would alter the soundscape of the work. Despite this lack of emotionality – or perhaps because of it – the performance has a surprising lightness to it, and unfolds a subtle, scurrilous comedy. Stanic especially likes "the playful approach to electronics" in Cathy van Eck’s work.

Lara Stanic performing Cathy van Eck's «Cheerers and Leaders».


This playfulness, this reinterpreting of what is seemingly pre-programmed, is what characterises her work. But Cathy van Eck is also someone who asks critical questions. At the Zurich University of the Arts she is researching into the topic of headphones in public spaces. She is concerned with processes of perception that are determined by how we hear through headphones, but that at the same time go beyond mere hearing because "they also incorporate visual and tactile perceptions and the experiences of body, space and time". Her goal is to use her research into the forms of perception made possible by headphones so as to analyse how people create and appropriate public spaces.

Once again, this lets us perceive Cathy van Eck’s interest in the corporeal impact of seemingly non-corporeal music. Whether as a composer, a sound artist or a researcher, Cathy van Eck is ultimately always concerned with the relationship between human beings and "machine music". In Cathy van Eck’s work, there is no such thing as music without a body.


Article written by Anja Wernicke , originally published in, May 2016