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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Dialogue with Tom Moody about Telesymphony

From Tom Moody's Blog.
Golan Levin, July 2003.

Tom Moody writes:

People sitting in a darkened theater stare at a large reflective surface, while cell phones ring randomly throughout the room. The typical moviegoing experience at Times Square? No, it's a musical piece called Dialtones, which I recently learned about on dratfink's page. This "telesymphony," performed in connection with the Ars Electronica festival and funded by Swisscom Mobile, etc., is a half-good idea that just doesn't know when to quit. Check out the exhausting spec sheet: the piece is a social sculpture, it uses corporate switching systems as a found medium, it employs a lot of clever programming and hardware, it's electronic music, it's live performance, it's an audience participation piece, it has flashing lights, it has graphics, it has Mylar!

This kind of MIT Media Lab product (at least one of the performers went there) just pounds you with technology. It's essentially a loss leader for the tech industry, crafted by geeks whose art sense derives from rock concert multimedia shows. Audience members are asked to register their phone numbers when they arrive for the concert, special ringtones are downloaded to their cells, and then a musical ensemble "plays" the phones in an auditorium by punching buttons on a graphic display. So far, so good, I guess, but do we really need spotlights hitting the audience members when their cells ring? Keychain lights distributed to everyone that glow red two seconds before the tones go off? To see all this activity in a reflective mirror? The visual element is as gimcrack-filled as a Spielberg movie.

The piece assumes an audience with near-infinite time, patience, and trust. You have to be willing to queue for a seat assignment, surrender your private number (to whom exactly?), and accept the downloaded "custom ringtone," all for the sake of one concert (to remove the tone, you're presumably on your own). Thirty minutes of antiphonal chirps, climaxing in the inevitable "crescendo of sound," might be pretty interesting to sit and listen to in the dark, if you weren't also being forced to "participate." The authors dispense grant-panel-friendly nonsense when they say this participation is "active," though. Your creative input consists solely of choosing a ringtone (doesn't the phone company also call this "creativity"?) and deciding what exotic handwaving motion to make when the spotlight hits you. The spec sheet doesn't mention another option you have that would definitely affect the "texture" of the piece: turning off your phone.

An audio recording of Dialtones can be heard on Kenny G.'s radio program on WFMU-FM. (It starts about 30 minutes into this stream.) It's pretty much what you might expect: electronic insect noises a la Richard Maxfield's "Night Music" mixed with Ray Manzarek-like psychedelic organ-noodling. Things perk up a bit in the middle with Scott Gibbons' solo section and some loud skronks made with a vibrating phone on a contact mike. I'm sure the piece is more dynamic in person, where you get all the spatial effects.

Tom Moody
10 October 2002.

Hi I just discovered this review several months down the road, sorry to be so late. Thanks, Tom, for getting irritated enough at my concert to raise some great points. Good feedback is rare.

Tom takes issue with the visual trappings of the concert. It's true, one alternative would have been to put everyone in a completely black room, and make the event chiefly about the sonic aspects of the mobile phone. There were a few reasons I didn't do this.

The first has to do with my interests in audio-visuality. I'm less interested in composing sound, than in creating contexts which reveal or establish a connection between image and sound. My idea for the Telesymphony actually emerged from some extremely formalist questions I had about the ways in which the audience itself could become the playback surface for an audiovisual situation. Bored of creating works for a projection screen, I was essentially wondering how each person in the audience could become an individually-addressable pixel in a large audiovisual display. The audience's mobile phones presented an expedient opportunity to achieve this (though perhaps too obvious a choice, given the way that they've become fetish gadgets). In any case, I should emphasize that I really don't consider the piece as a work of "music" (e.g. strictly sound), nor did I intend it to be appreciated as such. I think terms like performance art or social sound-sculpture are probably more accurate.

The second reason for all of the visual technologies has to do with a certain didactic interest I have. Simply put, I wanted people to be able to see what was going on. The fact is that it's extremely hard to localize the sound of a cell phone ringing -- it's basically a 3kHz pulse wave drilling in your ear, and sorely lacks the broad-spectrum noise that would allow you to localize it well (either directly or from its reflections). The large mirror and projection system made it possible for people to instantly locate the source of the ringing, and thereby understand what, basically, was happening all around them. You also have to remember that the audience is sitting in an essentially fixed row of chairs it's basically impossible to get a global overview of the event, from the vantage point of row 7, seat 9. With the mirror, they could not only see who was ringing, and how many people were ringing in which combinations, but they could also observe each others' reactions. For the same reason that it's helpful to actually *watch* the orchestra when one has the privilege of going to a symphony, I think the event would have been perceived as much more chaotic without the aid of the mirror and lights.

(That said, there were a few people in the audience who told me later that they enjoyed it more with their eyes closed. Even so, I contend that the mirror was still helpful, even for them, in establishing an understanding of what was going on.)

Tom's second chief complaint is that it's inaccurate hype to call the concert "interactive", or that it somehow involves audience participation. To this I have to say, I both agree and disagree. It would have been a great challenge indeed to make a piece of music which really was entirely performed (and presumably improvised) by a very large number of non-trained audience members. I think this is a fascinating art-and-technology research question, and obviously the Telesymphony doesn't come close. I also agree that it's bogus to say that one "actively participates" in the event by having made the commercial choice of a Nokia instead of a Motorola. Although there were some actual ways in which the audience members were [technologically] able to "participate" in the event you list them, including the folks who selected alternative ringtones from the ones we offered, or turned their phones off altogether -- I think the issue comes down to a different definition of "participate". Being a technologist and geek, it's easy to think that participation somehow must invove pressing a button and seeing an immediate response representing one's contribution. I'd like to offer a different understanding of participation that I only really understood after creating this concert.

The nearest analogy I have, is that it's like driving in your car and getting rear-ended. When this happens, you don't think to yourself, "He hit my car!" Instead, you think to yourself, "He hit me!" People identify with their phones like you wouldn't believe it's not some anonymous piece of plastic that they happen to be carrying, but, in an odd way, an extension of themselves. In the Telesymphony, people began to answer their phones out of mechanical habit. Many people expressed to me later how unsettled they felt when their phone was ringing even though they knew it was nothing more than my performance PC on the other end of the line because they kept mistakenly thinking that somebody was trying to contact them. I know its a bit of a stretch, but I contend that these people were very actively participating in the concert, at least psychologically, as more than just observers.

As a short technical clarification, in response to Tom's comment that "You have to be willing to queue for a seat assignment, surrender your private number (to whom exactly?), and accept the downloaded 'custom ringtone,' all for the sake of one concert (to remove the tone, you're presumably on your own)," and that doing this would require "near-infinite time, patience, and trust.": So, the audience was queuing for seating in any case, as they would have for any ticketed performance. Participants were explicitly informed that their private phone numbers would be entered into an anonymous database to be deleted immediately after the performance. Our custom ringtones were downloaded automatically to their phones, usually within 15 seconds of completing the form. Accepting the new ringtone, and later switching the ringtone back to one's preferred setting presented few difficulties, as ringtone downloading and swapping is a popular pastime in Europe. Altogether we found that the process of registering for the concert added less than two minutes to the time people were already spending on the ticket purchase. Finally, it was a rather patient and trustful audience of art enthusiasts, a major difference, I think, from seeing a movie in Times Square.

Tom, if you email me your address I'll send you a disc, it has some quicktime videos in addition to the soundtrack.


Golan Levin
26 July 2003.