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Contents © 2017 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues




Interview for Aculab Quarterly

Golan Levin, July 2002.


Where and when are you born, where do you generally live, what is your work history (schooling, university, job history)?

I'm American, born in New York City in 1972. I live in Brooklyn, but I work mostly in Europe (at the moment, I am an artist-in-residence at the Ars Electronica center in Linz, Austria). I studied fine arts and music at MIT, then worked for several years at a Silicon Valley research laboratory as an interaction desiger, and then returned to the MIT Media Laboratory for graduate studies in interactive art. I received my degree in 2000 and since then have worked and exhibited as an independent artist, composer and software engineer.


When you had the idea to compose mobile phone songs / how was the idea born?

I had the idea to create an orchestral work for mobile phones in September 2000. The idea came as a natural reaction to the sonic world of mobile phones, which as you know have been able to produce customized melodies for some time. It occurred to me that these sounds could be used in some kind of ensemble, perhaps helping to fulfill people's basic desire to make music together. I had no experience at all in digital telephony engineering or networks, but I already sensed that it would be one of the most difficult projects I could undertake.


What was the application going to do - how would it work?

"Dialtones" is a large-scale concert performance whose sounds are wholly produced through the carefully choreographed dialing and ringing of the audience’s own mobile phones. Because the exact location and tone of each participant’s mobile phone can be known in advance, Dialtones affords a diverse range of unprecedented sonic phenomena and musically interesting structures. Dialtones begins with a brief preparation phase prior to its performance, during which the members of the audience register their wireless telephone numbers at a cluster of secure Web kiosks. In exchange for this information, the participants receive seating assignment tickets for the concert venue, and new "ringtones" are then automatically downloaded to their handsets. During the concert itself, the audience’s mobile phones are brought to life by a small group of musicians, who perform the phones en masse by dialing them up with a specially designed software instrument. Because the audience’s positions and sounds are known to the Dialtones computer system, the performers can create spatially-distributed melodies and chords, as well as novel textural phenomena like waves of polyphony which cascade across the crowd.


What challenges did this pose - what was the developer looking for the underlying technology that would help them deliver?

We needed a technology which would allow us to dial up to 60 phones at the same time. with minimal delays, under real-time control. One very big part of our challenge was that we had an exceptionally tight development schedule. The entire project took 363 days, from the moment it was conceived until its premiere performance on 2 September 2001. However, I was just a single artist with an idea — it took me the first 10 months just to raise the money and sponsorship that would be necessary to create the project! As we had already promised to present the concert at the 2001 Ars Electronica festival, this left us with just two months to develop and test all the technology, write the music, and rehearse the concert. In fact, all of the code for our entire Aculab-based middleware system was written in just three weeks by my colleague Yasmin Sohrawardy. She had absolutely no previous experience with Aculab equipment, and only a small bit of experience in computer telephony — but she is an incredible software engineer, and the Aculab API proved to be very clear, extremely well documented, and completely reliable.


Description of the solution? How works the solution?

Essentially, we have a Windows machine with a graphical interface. This is used by the performers to request phone calls. This PC communicates to a Linux server containing the Aculab card, which converts the requests into phone calls. The calls are then transmitted over two E1 lines into the Mobile Switching Center of the local mobile service provider.


Where does Aculab technology fit and why was it chosen? What are the key differentiators which makes you chose Aculab? Was it easy to work with Aculab cards?

Aculab technology is the critical bridge between our group and the mobile service provider. We only have two software developers — myself and Yasmin — so we need to feel secure that our technology is reliable, because we don't have any other engineers on our staff except us! Plus, we're a pair of scruffy artists, working in cooperation with huge technical corporations like Swisscom Mobile or Mobilkom Austria. We're in a position where we absolutely cannot afford to have any embarrassing technical problems, or else we'll just be dismissed completely. If their engineers think we don't know what we're doing, that's it— we'll never even get in the door. So we needed to work with technology that was both reliable, and also easy to understand in a hurry. We chose Aculab because, in addition to having demonstrably solid technology, they were the only company willing to work with such a small customer. This personal touch really made the difference for us - we had three weeks to build a computer telephony system from scratch, and we were able to do it with the help of just a couple of phone calls and the Aculab documentation.


How was the support at Aculab?

The online documentation was very clear. The technical support people, when we needed to talk to them, were also extremely patient. Overall this was one of the best technical support experiences I've ever had.


How many concerts are you giving during the year? When will you have your next concert?

We gave 17 concerts at the Swiss National Exposition in May and June. There are no current plans to perform the Dialtones concert again, however. It's really too expensive.