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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Tanya Bezreh for Artbyte

Golan Levin, May 2001.

Golan Levin talks with Tanya Bezreh about conducting a symphony of a "hundred little X's." In this case, cell phones.

Golan Levin is all packed for Austria, funding more or less in hand, staff lined up, space in the Ars Electronica Center's offices secured. He will be in Linz for two months, assembling a concert that will premiere at the September festival. The concert, called Dialtones, will be a "telesymphony" played entirely with the ring tones of the audience's cell phones. At last year's festival, Levin won the Award of Distinction in the Interactive category for Audiovisual Environment Suite, audiovisual software that was performed as a quartet. He's nervous discussing a concert that hasn't even happened yet—and one that is dependent on good luck and tight production. Alarmingly, the night we talk, Levin has just checked his e-mail only to read a forwarded AP article with the headline "cell phone symphony," about an orchestra in Israel that introduced its symphonic highlights with classical-music-ring-tone samples.

Did reading that "cell phone symphony" headline freak you out?

Of course. One always wants to be the first, even though there are thousands of times one finds out one is not. When I did my master's thesis I obsessively dug into the history because I really wanted to make the point that there are thousands of precedents to everything we do, and all of these pioneers are frequently overlooked. And some aren't pioneers, some are total cheesemeisters. (Laughs) And the idea is current. It's not me who is having the idea, so much as the world is having the idea.

Are there cell phone symphony cheesemeisters?

Anything involving a lot of X's all playing at the same time can be a schtick, a gimmick. And it is the challenge of the artist to surpass that, surpass the materials that they're using and hopefully, ideally, make a profound statement. I want someone to write an article about the historical overview of all the people who've done music with a hundred X's. Laurie Anderson did that car horn symphony in 1972. Obviously, she had precedents as well, like Cage.

Have you ever seen any precedent-setting "quantity performances" live?

I missed the Perry Hoberman thing in '99 with the blenders [Thick Shake at Ars Electronica 1999]. I was born in the year that Laurie Anderson did the car horn thing; I'm sorry I missed that. The one that I like the best is Maywa Denki [Japanese avant garde performance duo Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa], because they went one level of abstraction higher. They said we're just going to have outlets that we turn on and off, and you can plug whatever you want into the outlets. If you want 100 blenders, put 100 blenders in there. If you want 100 drills, put 100 drills or 100 saws or 100 whatever. It's a nice meta-approach because they identified this phenomenon of a hundred X's.

How did you approach Ars Electronica?

I told Gerfried [Stocker, the Center's director] about it in October, and he said it sounds expensive. And I said, "It's a hundred grand." And he said, "Get the fuck out of here." Then I went to Berlin in February for the Transmediale. A friend said I should talk to these two underground phone hackers who work for him. They'd been involved in the scene for 20 years, doing interesting things with phones. They laid it out for me. They said, "That's what you want to do? Here's how you do it." I was like, shit, that's actually affordable. And with that information, I changed the proposal, went back to Gerfried, and said, "OK, I can do it for fifty grand. And he said, "Go raise the money, and we'll talk."

So you shopped this proposal around?

Exactly. I was very lucky to get some help from Thundergulch.org. I've been very lucky with arts organizations and grant foundations. They're in the business of giving out money. Cellular phone companies are not in the business of giving out money, however. So it's taking a longer time.

Which is to say what? There's still equipment that needs to come through?

There are a few things we need. Think about what it means to have an orchestra of phones ringing simultaneously. The idea of making music with a phone is not original; cell phones have had ring tones for several years. The new medium, in this case, is the mobile switching center [the system that enables calls between mobile phones, as well as calls between mobile and standard phones.] That's something the average person does not have access to. If you think about the history of new media art, the pioneers are people who have first access to something that was formerly technologically or financially prohibitive. In the late '60s, early '70s, computers were these rare things that only existed in big research labs. Computers were the size of this room. You'd be this remarkably rare artist who got the chance to work with such things. New media art is still defined by that kind of accessibility. Who can personally place 30 simultaneous phone calls? Probably, in five years, everyone can do it. Or ten years. Today, the average person, musician, composer, or artist, does not have access to 100 outgoing phone lines. That's infrastructural.

What about those robot calls you get on the telephone? Are they calling 30 people at a time?

There's probably some 16-year-old, a really fucking good hacker, who figures out some way to hack into the net2phone API and starts making random phone calls for giggles. It could happen. Networks are vulnerable, and someone with a similar idea could achieve something. The theme of Ars Electronica this year is "takeover." It's compatible with the idea of a person, namely me, or my group, taking over an infrastructure that's not normally available to us.

Do you think it's going to be carefully composed, or will there be room for improv? What if only 50 people show up, versus a thousand people?

That's a great question. I think we'll have a much more accurate idea about that the week of the performance; we'll know what we can support. There are two main elements of chance that play into the piece. The one that's up to the technology is unpredictable dialing delays. [The other element] is up to the audience. This is played on their mobile phones. If I give them mobile phones, that's much less interesting. Come as you are, and you are prepared to be part of this larger thing. And everyone has a cell phone. It's just a fact. Even if everyone doesn't have a cell phone, everyone has a cell phone. All you have to do is just show up, because you're already carrying all the equipment you need. But equipment varies. Some people have older cell phones. Some people have newer cell phones. Some people have shitty cell phones. Some people have very fancy cell phones.

What's the cell phone or the ring tone that you most fear?

I have to embrace; I can't fear. I don't want this to be an ad for Nokia, but Nokia has the best phones. Their phones can accept new ringtones over SMS. Ericsson makes otherwise fine equipment, but for some reason, they never implemented ring tone transmission. So if someone in the audience shows up with an Ericsson, what am I supposed to do? I have to embrace that. I can't control their handset. If they want to stick it to me, they're going to put the William Tell Overture on there.

So why are you doing this?

Because I have this weird combination of wanting to, and I think I can. But mostly it's for the sake of the idea itself. I want to know what it will be like. I know it's a cheesy answer, but from a phenomenological perspective I think it could be really interesting, really stunning. Iannis Xenakis, the composer, had a great quote: "The problem with electronic music is that it all sounds the same, because it always comes out of the same two speakers." And this is about radically shifting that, to create an environment where there are 500 speakers around you, and they're all spatialized. Hell, yeah, I want to know what it's like to be surrounded by that. It's not just for the sake of the stunt. The challenge is to transcend the stunt, to surpass that medium, make it more than schtick, make it meaningful, personally or socially.

How are you going to make it meaningful, personally or socially?

That becomes a matter of making moving music, and that is something I don't think anyone can describe how to do. It has to succeed formally. As a composition, it has to do all the dramaturgy and choreography that a piece of music has. It moves you, lifts you up, brings you down, and takes you to some interesting space. The misé-en-scene has to support that as well and make it an interesting experience for the people who are there. The piece will hopefully be a metaphor for, or alert you to the fact, that all around us there is this symphony already happening. And I'm just gathering it into a place of unusual density.

That's beautifully put.

"Wherever you are, there is always a symphony happening"— this is very Cageian. Why am I doing this? I'd like to substantially transform people and the way they perceive these ubiquitous devices they carry on them. So they can never hear a ringing cell phone the same way again.

Are you afraid people are going to answer their phones?

Like any traditional concert, you're just not allowed to answer your phone.

Will you make a cheesy announcement?

"Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your cell phones on."