Art: Takeshi Tadatsu

Dialtones: A Telesymphony
Golan Levin / Scott Gibbons / Gregory Shakar

Recently, a friend was discussing the psychogeographical changes that cellphones were having on the streets of New York. She posited that everyone now was a walking GPS (global positioning system) and observed that the first thing most people do when talking on the cellphone in New York is to disclose their geographical position to whomever they are speaking: "I'm walking down 6th Ave. approaching 23rd St."

This acute awareness of place is accompanied by a whole new realm of soundtracks: the ringtones. The streets of New York are now filled with a new sort of music: I've heard everything from Beethoven's 9th to "Pump Up the Jam" chirped out on microchips. On WFMU, we've actually gone on the Web and collected as many of these as we can and play them as interstitials between segues. They've become a new sort of audio cliche, making their way into pop songs in the same way the vinyl scratch or the digital glitch has.

So I figured that it wouldn't be long until someone decided to take these phenomena and make a symphony out of them. Golan Levin, a conceptual digital artist, has done just that. The result is Dialtones: a Telesymphony, a 26-minute piece composed and performed on 200 cellphones. The CD is from a live recording made at the Ars Electronica festival in Linz. The premise is great: the first 200 people coming into the auditorium who were carrying cellphones registered at a computer kiosk in the lobby, whereupon new ringtones --specially composed for the event --were downloaded to their phones. They were then assigned seats in the front center part of the concert hall in a 20-by-10 arrangement, hence becoming the cellphone "orchestra."

Onstage, Levin and his cohorts were working banks of computers as they frantically started calling each cellphone in the "orchestra." Since they knew exactly where each participant was sitting and what their ringtones would be, they began weaving lines of sound through this forest of phones. The piece, scored beforehand, was simply a matter of coordinating hundreds of machines to work together to produce a symphony.

The result is a fairly abstract piece of electronic music. By contrast, Levin could have done, say, massive cellphone versions of Metallica tunes, but instead chose a more ambient route, taking cues from Ligeti's "Atmospheres," Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" and Terry Riley's "A Rainbow in Curved Air." The phones' incessant chattering is also oddly reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen's transcriptions of birdsongs in his "Catalogue d'oiseaux." The glitches and small technical flaws bring to mind much of the digital electronica that we've been hearing over the past few years.

Dialtones is a symphony in three movements. The first part begins with the quiet chirping of conventional ringtones and slowly builds in complexity, culminating in Bach-like harpsichord fugues. After a few minutes, you forget that the instruments are cellphones; instead, they start to remind you of electronic organs or synthesizers. The second movement features a solo on 6 mobile phones by Scott Gibbons, a composer who fronts the experimental group Lilith. Gibbons taps out complex rhythms against the random blips and bleeps of the orchestra. In the last movement Gibbons throws a phone on vibrate mode onto a pad, giving occasional disruptive blasts of noise to the whole affair. The piece ends with a crescendo of 200 chaotic ring tones all going off at once and fades out with one or two conventional rings into silence.

You can file this one alongside Wendy Mae Chambers' car horn rendition of "New York, New York," Donald Knaack's performances on oil cans and phone books, John Cage's compositions of amplified cacti, Lauren Lesko's contact-miked sounds of her vagina, Matmos' dance music made from the sounds of plastic surgery and Jaap Blonk's new techno music all made with samples of his mouth sounds. Dialtones raises the bar on these examples by coordinating elaborate technical and telephonic pyrotechnics; it's a small miracle that Levin was able to pull this off. And far from stopping at the wonders of sheer geekdom, it also sounds great, making this one of those rare instances of computer-based music where the music is actually more interesting than the machines that made it.

Volume 15, Issue 49

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