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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Peter Traub for Contemporary Music Review

Golan Levin, 11-19 March 2005.

Peter writes: "I'm a PhD student in the Univ. of Virginia's composition program, and am currently in the research process for a paper on internet composition for the Contemporary Music Review. The core of the paper will revolve around interviews with and descriptions of different artists' approaches to composing on the internet or for networks."

In reading some of your previous interviews, you stated that you didn't really think of 'Dialtones' as a musical work, but rather as a performance piece. In what way do you think the difference in thinking about the piece affected your compositional choices?

Dialtones was always, to begin with, a kind of sound-art piece or conceptual performance artwork. I say this because the project originated from a pure concept (that of performing the audience's mobile phones), and was motivated by a curiosity to discover what it would be like sonically, visually, and socially to experience such a concept. In this sense, I don't think it's too much to say that the project conformed well to John Cage's definition of experimental music: as music that "initiates sonic processes the outcomes of which are not known in advance." The problem with Cage's definition, though, is that it suggests that it wouldn't have mattered whether or not the results reflected any human patterning, or that we oughtn't intervene in some way to ensure an interesting outcome. I think if Dialtones just sounded like a pile of 200 phones ringing on and off randomly for half an hour, people would have been really profoundly disappointed. For the project to succeed, it was necessary for us to demonstrate that we could actually tame this enormous and unruly beast the mobile telephony network of Upper Austria in order to bend it to more musically structured ends. For these reasons, I would say that Dialtones was a performance piece in its conceptualization, but ultimately a musical work in its realization.

It's important to say that, in the end, it took three people to compose Dialtones. Apart from the concept itself and some very telescopic decisions about overall sequencing, I was really the least involved in the actual musical composition; my hands were already quite full with logistical issues and software programming. The greatest bulk of the concert was composed by Gregory Shakar, who developed most of the orchestra's ringtones, and Scott Gibbons, who also composed ringtones as well as the central solo section of the performance. I think, for them, the compositional process was governed by very explicitly musical concerns melody, rhythm, texture, drama. We all recognized that this piece had to function in a way that would be recognizably musical, or at least played with this concept by deliberately treading the fuzzy boundary between music and noise. As much as we all admired Cage's practiced indifference to chaos, we felt that the days of purely random music were over, and that taking a completely hands-off aleatoric approach would have been a cop-out. And as it turns out, there really were a ton of aleatoric elements in its presentation that made it (perhaps pleasingly) difficult to listen to anyway. As I explain below, our job as music composers really came to focus on effectively managing the considerable randomness built into the situation.

You described one person's experience with the work in which he entered his phone information into the concert's database, but then had to skip the performance. Apparently he kept getting dialed by your performance system during the show. This seems to suggest an almost opposite possibility, in which people at the performance who had their phones turned on were called normally by someone outside the event. Do you know if there were any occurrences of this? Furthermore, if, hypothetically, a number of people were called from outside sources during perhaps the solo section of the piece, would you consider that an interruption or a serendipitous moment in the piece? I'm curious if you can speak to the idea of tapping into this phone network to produce an organized work, but in the act of doing so, also leaving yourself succeptible to the interruption and chaos that could be introduced into the network from outside of the performance.

The possibility that people could receive outside calls during the performance certainly occurred to us, when we cheekily instructed the audience to "please leave your cellphone ringers on." If this event actually did occur, we had no technical tools for detecting it; we would have had to listen for unintended rings, and usually there were so many phones ringing at the same time that we wouldn't have heard it. My feeling is that we would have only conceived such an event to be an undesireable interruption if the audience member actually answered their phone and started having a conversation in the middle of the performance. But we had also explicitly requested the audience not to answer their phones, and fortunately nobody did this.

More generally, your question brings up the topic of chance and unpredictable events in the Dialtones performance. We were able to count at least seven different sources of unpredictability that affected the concert. Some of these were due to properties of the network itself, while others could be attributed to specific audience members or to audiences generally. Chance elements in the performance included the following:

  • The telephone network imposed an unpredictable latency between the time that we dialed a phone, and the time that the requested phone would begin to ring. We did some experiments and determined that the average delay was 4.74 seconds, with a standard deviation of about a second or so. In some cases, particularly when we dialed international numbers, the delay could be as long as twelve or thirteen seconds. This fact had serious compositional consequences, musically speaking, since it meant that we couldn't create precise synchronizations between rhythmic ringtones. It also meant that any chord progressions would have to play out over a fairly long timescale in order to be reliably perceived. We ended up composing ringtone melodies which all shared the same tonal center I think it was A-880 and adopted a more textural approach to compensate.

  • On rare occasions, a requested connection was dropped by the network. This happened less than 30 times (out of the approximately 5000 dialing requests that constituted the concert) and generally only when we were pushing close to the signalling capacity of the concert hall's base station antenna. It's impossible to know for certain, but I suspect that there may have been some extraneous phone activity outside the concert hall which, from time to time, ate up one or two channels on our antenna system. Theoretically we had 60 signalling channels, but I don't think we ever got more than 58 of them going at once.

  • We were only technologically capable of specifying the ringtone melodies for roughly two-thirds of the audience's phones. When Dialtones was performed, in late 2001, many people still did not own phones that could receive new ringtones via the Short Messaging Service this feature was still just being introduced in the latest models by only a few manufacturers. As a result, we were unable to know exactly what sound would occur when we dialed those people with older phones about a third of our orchestra, or 65 people. Fortunately, we had a good idea who they were, since we asked all of the participants to provide the exact make and model of their mobile phone when they registered their phones before the concert. With this in mind, we were able to use this fact compositionally: at the beginning of the performance, we dialed all the people with unknown ringtones. It turns out most of those people just had "regular phone" ring sounds, e.g. non-melodies.

  • Some people deliberately (and probably mischieviously) changed the ringtones on their phones, even though we transmitted one of our own ringtones to their phone. This happened on at least two occasions. One person, actually a good friend of mine, later confessed to me that he had replaced our ringtone with the theme song from the television show "Dallas."

  • People could have deliberately, prematurely terminated the connection while their phone was ringing (or thoughtlessly attempted to answer their phone, out of habit). It is even possible that people could have turned their phone off altogether. I have no information about whether any of these things actually occurred.

  • People could have switched seats with another participant, or sat in one of the (few) empty seats. Their phones would still ring, but their personal spotlight would not hit them, and their sound would have a different spatialization than we intended. More drastically, a person could register for the event, and then not show up; their phone would still ring, but not be heard at all in the performance venue. This definitely happened at least once.

  • As you mentioned, it was possible for people to receive phone calls that originated externally. We were not aware of this happening, but it very likely could have.

As you can see, the telephone network itself was unpredictable in many ways. Our attitude was to embrace serendipity, as we really had no choice about it. In some sense, Scott Gibbons' solo section (which he performed very carefully on 6 phones) became an even more significant contrast to the orchestral sections because of his high degree of control.

[Thinking about the issue of Cageian chance a little more, I think the main difference in our attitude was that Cage was responding to overdetermined 20th-century compositional forms by trying to inject some vital unpredictability and variability, while the Dialtones project was trying to wrangle an extremely complex and inherently unpredictable communications system into some semblance of order. We were trying to negotiate chance, rather than seek it out.]

How many of these chance elements were you able to play with before the first concert? Were you able to conduct small experiments on a limited number of phones prior to the initial performance? If so, were there issues, such as the dial/ring delay you mention above, that you encountered before the first concert and then made compositional changes to deal with it?

That's exactly what we did. One of our main logistical challenges in developing the project was actually getting enough phones to test the system. Through a variety of contacts and sources we managed to borrow about seventy phones. Nokia Austria loaned us ten, Ericsson loaned us ten, our main sponsor loaned us about twenty, and a local phone store in Linz provided another ten or so. Another ten were actually loaned to us from individuals! It was a real hodge-podge of different models, which turned out to be quite helpful for the purposes of testing and debugging. Computing the average delay-time was one of the first experiments we conducted once we got the dialing system to work. We only had a couple of days before the show in which everything was actually up and running, and that's when most of the real composition got done - testing different combinations of ringtones, etcetera.

When we were first developing the concert, it was almost impossible for us to get enough phones to test and compose with. We were really desperate, and we were lucky to have the assistance of the Ars Electronica development office. The staff there called every conceivable sponsor trying to get phones for us, and most of the time they were turned down. It's sad, but true: once the idea had been successfully demonstrated, it was an entirely different story. This is well-illustrated by the following two pictures. This photo shows our testing setup at Ars Electronica in 2001, while this one shows the 150 test phones that Swisscom Mobile loaned us one year later. They even built a custom charging station for us!

How were the 'unknown' ringtones used later in the piece? Other than at the beginning, did they have a special use within the composition throughout, or did you try to always keep them at some limited percentage of the overall sound texture?

Generally speaking we tried to avoid clicking on the "unknown" phones except at designated times. This was done just to keep the different parts of the concert perceptually distinct. The alternative would have diluted the character of the different sections with an even blanket of off-color sound.

The second possibility you describe above (of the person registering but not showing up), is quite interesting. Are you familiar with Thomson and Craighead's 'Telephony'? It's a gallery-based cell phone piece that allows users to dial out from phones on a gallery wall, or dial into that network of phones from their own phones. Some people would dial their own phones from the gallery wall, thus leaving their numbers in the gallery phone's register. On multiple occasions, people at later times would hit the send button twice on a gallery phone, thus redialing its last number, and this would end up calling some previous gallery visitor. I found this a very interesting phenomenon, as in some sense the visitor had left the real space of the gallery but had perhaps become trapped in the virtual space of the piece. This sounded very similar to me to your description of people who registered but then left before the performance and were called anyway by your software. Besides the fact that the person receiving the call might be annoyed, would you consider those events happy accidents of a sort, in that the network and the piece are perhaps extending themselves beyond the reach of the physical performance space? I'm not quite sure if that is the right question to ask, but there seems to be something important about this phenomenon and I'm wondering what you think of it?

I am familiar with Thomson and Craighead's project (I've listed it, for example, in my Informal Catalogue of Mobile Phone Performances, Installations and Artworks), but I wasn't aware that it enabled the particular behavior you mention. I do agree that this is one of the most interesting aspects of both projects. Speaking for the Dialtones concert, I can only say that this aspect emerged anecdotally, and not due to our explicit intention or on any significant scale.

One of your primary interests in 'Dialtones' was to create this grid of audiovisual pixels through using the audience as a canvas or screen. And perhaps that already answers this question, but I'm wondering how you thought about the large and complex phone network that you tapped into as a compositional tool? Did you think about it as a transmission medium for the work much like one thinks about a sound system (i.e., as a means to end) or did you think about it in some way more central to the idea of the work and its structuring?

Hmm.. I guess my answer partially derives from my experiences in high school, back in the late 1980's, with keyboard synths. To some extent during its development, I began to think of the Dialtones telephone network as a very large polyphonic synthesizer, albeit one with a lot of unpredictable quirks (especially with regard to latency). And each of the audience's phones were voices or individual oscillators in that large synth, and my job was to play the instrument by clicking on the right notes on its keyboard at the right time.

I say I "began" to think of the phone network as a polyphonic synth, but I certainly didn't end that way. My concept of the instrument changed entirely on the night of the first performance, when we were finally able to bring a live audience into the situation. What you have to understand, which was a little weird, is that we were projecting the image of our gridlike graphical interface onto the audience from above (as you mentioned). The logic of this was to project a spot of light onto the head of an audience member whenever his or her phone was ringing. What we didn't quite foresee was that the audience was also able to witness my cursor as I hunted around for a person to click on. My whole concept of the instrument changed when I was performing the piece for the first time, and I looked up from my personal LCD screen just to double-check the location of my (projected) cursor in the crowd. My cursor had landed in the lap of this woman and I suddenly made eye-contact with her. I had been thinking, I'm going to click on this cell, but in her mind, she was waiting for a phone call from me. And when her phone started to ring she smiled at me, and I suddenly realized that I was actually able to address individual people in the crowd, and in a peculiarly personal way. I'm not sure what else to say about this, but it certainly yanked me back from conceiving of the phone network as an abstract sound-triggering system, and reminded me about what it really is, which is a communications medium that connects people. I guess that's sort of sappy ("Reach out and touch someone"), but that's exactly what the network/instrument became about, from my perspective as its performer.

I know you're not sure what else to say about this, but that is a wonderfully illuminating story. With respect to the phenomenon of people seeing the mouse pointer as you looked for 'pixels' to activate, was that something you tried to get rid of for subsequent performances, or did you end up viewing it as an important part of the piece and as a phenomenon that was important in the audience/performer interaction?

Yes, we kept that. Among other things it was significantly helpful in communicating and illustrating what was going on.

Several interview respondents have talked about the fallibility of networks or the imperfections in networks as being a point of interest for them artistically. In a piece I'm currently working on, the degradation of feedback through audio streaming is a focal point of the work. Why do you think there is such a great interest for many electronic artists and artists working with networks to exploit imperfections, artifacts, and failures within the medium? Did you have similar interests in creating 'Dialtones', and if not, how do your interests differ?

By coincidence, I've just been reading some essays on this topic, about musicians' interest in their tools' artifacts and imperfections. Kim Cascone has a nice article about 'Glitch' musics ("The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music", in Cox & Warner's Audio Culture reader), and Rob Young has written a related article, "Worship the Glitch: Digital Music, Electronic Disturbance" (in the new WIRE anthology, Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music). Most of their examples concern composers who are deliberately using vinyl crackling, digital clipping, and digital compression artifacts as foreground elements of their compositions, and these authors' main conclusions, which I think are quite reasonable, are that (1) "failure is more interesting than success", especially insofar as it is a progenitor to further discovery and evolution, and (2) artifacts reveal the true nature and limits of a medium. So I agree that it's quite natural for artists to explore the imperfections and artifacts of a well-understood medium because it gives the listener a new appreciation for a system which is otherwise all-too-often assumed to be perfectly transparent.

As I suggest above, I think these sorts of preoccupations with the failure-points of a given medium presuppose, to some extent, the audience's familiarity with that medium's "normal" mode of operation. It's a cheeky gag to include tape hiss or MP3 phasing in a new CD, because we all know from considerable experience with these media that they're not "supposed" to sound that way. In the case of Dialtones, on the other hand, nobody knew what 200 simultaneous mobile phones would sound like, and we were just trying to get this telephone network to sound like something at all. So, to answer your question, no: as best as I can recollect, we were interested in overcoming the failure-points of the phone network (like dropped connections, etc.) rather than exploiting them. Of course, it's sort of an odd glitch in the first place that the telephony network could be abused in order to produce a symphonic chorus of ringtones.