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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Frank Sawatzki for Receiver Magazine

Golan Levin, July 2002.

How did you get the idea for a mobile phone sound performance?

I think musicians have always been very quick to pick up on the intrinsic musical possibilities of the sound-making elements of their environment, whether in paleolithic times or in the post-twentieth century world of musique concrete. Mobile phones are now all around us, and for some time they have been designed to make musical sounds when they ring. But it is also a natural impulse for people to make music together — this is the impetus behind duets, bands, orchestras. I think our idea was to tap into this impulse, at the same time as to explore the orchestral possibilities of this new and ubiquitous sound source.

Could you explain in a few words how a Dialtones performance is carried out technically?

There are two technically distinct sections of the Dialtones performance: the orchestra and the soloist. The orchestra consists of all of the audience members; their phones are caused to ring by a live performer from our group. Scott, our soloist, has his own technical system which is separate from the orchestra; his rig consists of about a dozen phones whose headphone outputs are run into a mixer and amplified. The audience members register their mobile phones at a series of web terminals before the show. Their phone numbers are entered into a database. In return for this information, each audience member receives an automatically-generated seating assigment in the orchestra grid. A new ringtone, composed by our group, is also automatically sent to their phone. During the concert, one of our group's performers clicks on grid cells in a graphical user interface. The grid cells correspond to people sitting in the orchestra grid. Each click thus launches a phone call to the corresponding person.

That's where the trick is. It turns out that dialing dozens of phones at the same time is not so simple - it requires massive resources at an infrastructural level. We had to ask Mobilkom Austria and Swisscom Mobile for high-bandwidth access into their mobile switching centers, and for special modifications to their antenna systems in order to handle up to 60 simultaneous phone calls. But the magic glue was provided by Aculab, a small European company that makes high-quality telephony gear. They loaned us a special PC card that allowed us, a couple of scruffy artists, to plug directly into the behemoth telephony matrix of an entire country. We were under an enormously tight deadline, and Yasmin [Sohrawardy, an engineer on the project] was able to code all of the connectivity to their hardware in less than 3 weeks.

Do Dialtones concerts differ one from another, do you work with different phone sounds from time to time, do you improvise in the second part?

There is a basic structure which is scored, consisting of 3 movements of about 6 minutes each. In the first movement, the orchestra plays; in the second movement, just the soloist; and in the third, they play together. Within each movement, there are a series of scored textures, each about a minute long. But within these textures the details are much more improvisational.

In aeroplanes people are advised to turn off their mobile phones - dialtones says: turn them on, listen and look! Do you think there's a bright future for mobile phones as pop music instruments?

I think it will soon be possible for people to collaborate musically in some way with their mobile phones. The kinds of available sounds will become much more varied, the musical control will become much more powerful with the addition of some kind of real-time sequencer, and wireless networking will allow people to synchronize to a common time base. The biggest problem I see is the poor quality of the speaker audio, but it's easy to plug into some kind of amplifier, and away you go.

What's the role of the video projection system in Dialtones?

The performers’ grid-based graphical interface is projected onto the audience from above, and carefully registered with their seats. As a result, each participant is lit up by a personal spot of light whenever their handset is rung. In this way each individual becomes an audio-visual pixel, a twinkling particle in an audio-visual substance — and the participants, as a group, are at once audience, orchestra and (active) score. The concerts performed in Linz used a 12000 ANSI Lumen Barco ELM R12, with a special wide-angle lens, for the projection of these spotlights. In order to more clearly show how the spots of light play across the audience — indicating which people are ringing at any instant — a very large, multi-panel Mylar mirror (6x15 meters) is erected at an angle above the crowd.

Dialtones seems to be a piece about technology & arts: what did you learn about the interaction of these two while composing and performing?

From my perspective, I see this as something of an oversimplification, since to me the project was more of an intersection of technology, arts, and fundraising. We spent 9 months raising the support and money to do the project, and less than 3 months developing all the software, writing the music, and rehearsing our performance. I really wish it could have been the other way around. As to your question, I don't believe it's possible to separate craft from content.

Are you influenced more by music or by art? By a special artist? What's the role of the diverse musical projects of you Scott, the work with numbers and alphabets of you Golan?

I try not to cut the world up in this way. These days, I do online projects, installations, performances, and print work. The main motivation of my work is to explore the relationships between sound, image and language.

Blind date question: Can you identify mobile phone types by their dial sounds?

Yes. Scott and I would often hear a sound in a restaurant somewhere and both say at the same time: Motorola.

In your work people are audience and orchestra at the same time: is this the end of classic entertainment?

I certainly hope not. But I do believe that there is a wide-open space for the introduction of more participatory forms of musical expression.

Did you get comments from participants in your performance after the concert?

Something that surprised me was the extent to which people personally identify with their phones — many people felt uncomfortably singled-out when their phones rang, while other people found themselves to be oddly jealous of those whose phones were ringing more than their own. In one case I know, somebody was able to psychologically experience the event without even attending it: this fellow came up to us after the Austrian concert, and explained that he had registered for the event but was then unable to attend; for the rest of that evening, he said, "my phone kept ringing at regular intervals, but I was continually unnerved to discover nobody on the other end of the line."

My favorite reaction to this project was from an older woman who attended our concerts at the Swiss National Exposition. It turns out that she had attended the previous Swiss Expo in 1964, where she witnessed Rolf Liebermann's concert for 156 electric typewriters. She said that the 1964 event had a "combination of whimsy and dignity" which had deeply imprinted itself in her memory, and that our event was the first thing she had seen since that time which recaptured this spirit. I really appreciated this unusual bridge to the past.