Golan Levin “Dialtones”

Golan Levin,  recalls making his sound piece Dialtones as

“deliberately treading the fuzzy boundary between music and noise,”

words I believe could be applied to all of the people we have studied in this class to a degree. Pushing the boundaries of composition and music and stretching the accepted view of what sounds are pleasing to the ear seems to be a recurring theme each week as we discuss sound artists.

In the interview, Levin references John Cage’s influence on the experimental and unpredictable nature of his music multiple times. Many aspects of using digital sounds produced by technology are unpredictable in nature, especially when these sounds are produced by a person’s main communication device. Who knows when someone will next be contacted through their cellular device? Levin recounts numerous instances of unpredictable happenstances but does not seem to view these as mistakes in the performance, but as chance elements that heighten contrast for the composed solo section of Dialtones. This idea of letting whatever sounds happen to occur be a part of a performance piece is quite similar to the mindsets of Bill Fontana, John Cage, Edgard Varese, and even all the way back to Luigi Russolo.

Most intriguing, Levin makes a bold statement that

“the days of purely random music were over”,

defining music composition as the ability to effectively manage this randomness. It seemed Levin moved away from this randomness more than he even realized because of the human control in decision making he utilized during the performance. He purposefully chose people to shine light on during the performance and trigger their phone, instead of using

“an abstract sound-triggering system, [inadvertently making the performance] a communications medium that connects people.”

This may have connected him to individual members of the audience as he triggered their phones as musical instruments, but it erased the thought of complete randomness from the performance entirely. Instead, Dialtones is more composed than most pieces we have looked at in class so far.

As I started to read this interview, I was immediately brought back to one of my first ADM assignments in which we had to pitch a large-scale interactive piece. My group focused on human interaction in controlling sound in an exhibition space which turned into a performance space as sound was thought of as organized and composed. We had decided to pitch the idea of using audience members phones in a circular auditorium that would be programed to play musical sounds controlled by a center computer. The idea was quite extravagant and also proposed controlling the flashlight on phones so that the performance could simultaneously be a light show during which sound and light would emanate from each individual person’s seat. Thus, audience members would ideally feel they are a part of the performance — similar to Dialtones in many aspects I am now realizing. However, in both instances, the level of interaction with the audience can be questioned. People are not touching or interacting with their own phones at all, especially when compared to the level of interaction in Thomson & Craighead’s Telephony. It makes me think how connected are to our phones… so much so, that we feel we are participating in a performance just because our possession is being controlled by a computer or in Dialtones‘s case, Levin and his software.

Listening to Dialtones is a very familiar experience as we hear sounds around us daily, although escalated in the performance. I think most people find these sounds that phones emit to be annoying, not because the sounds are annoying themselves but because it seems somehow offensive to emit a sound every time you get a social media notification, message, call, et cetera. Thus, most people keep their phones on silent or vibration or low volume. But I imagine that if a group of people in a densely populated space all turned their phones on full volume for all notifications, the resulting sound would be very similar to Dialtones. The main difference of course being the compositional techniques used in Dialtones that make it more like a musical performance than ambient digital noise.

Digital Landscape: Commotion

Aggregated audio and visuals from our daily lives can convey a new story through composition and technical distortion. The combined video and audio above speaks to the constant bustle of life in Singapore and the extravagant city life it appears to be as a leading Asian tourist and expat city. High color saturation and a variety of video movements figuratively represent the high energy of a sleepless and commercialized country. Noises blur together with bursts of sound from cars, overhead human voices, and a continuous muffled background noise that emanates from public spaces. Throughout the piece, people walking across the frame remains a constant so as to root the composition in how this visual and noise commotion affects the people whose lives it intersects.

Sound: Response to John Cage’s “Silence”

History is often read as context for understanding the present. Yet, in John Cage’s “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” he spends the first four paragraphs renouncing history:

“Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?”

Instead he proposes, that:

“one does not seek by his actions to arrive at … success… beauty… [or] truth[,] but does what must be done.”

While this seems to contradict any sense of purposeful composition, the theory makes sense in combining noise sounds that may simply be noises that are heard in everyday life — noises combined without artistic intent. Accepting this lack of control can be quite difficult for the designer’s mind in someone like myself, which attempts to design a concrete solution to a problem.

Reading Cage’s writing after reading Edgard Varese’s “The Liberation of Sound” gave me a greater appreciation for how advanced Varese was for his time. Still, Cage criticizes Varese as being not experimental (or varied) enough in the outcome of his sound compositions. Cage’s focus on chance operation and lack of preconceived notions seems to be a reversal of how we compose, design, or create.

Out of the three of these terms, I would deduct “create” to be the word that fits Cage’s proposal for experimental music best; yet, creation typically exists through use of the imagination and Cage reject’s Varese’s use of the imagination. His extreme opposition to history and purpose in music is quite intimidating in envisioning how myself or anyone might compose such music based on indeterminacy.

On the other hand, composing silence seems to be accepted by Cage and planning for space and emptiness is an idea that easily translates across much of art and design. Maybe Cage is proposing that we abandon commonly accepted ways of planning and strategically composing sounds and approach compositions from new angles. We can still write pieces with intent but then flip the composition or erase parts or find other means that would result in an outcome that wasn’t originally conceived. Possibly, experimental music might simply be about letting the sounds drive the composition and being open to however the sounds combine themselves…

“Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds”

This brings up the concept of what is considered sound versus music, which we have explored in each reading so far. If we let noises drive compositions, does that mean they are still musical compositions? One of John Cage’s most famous pieces, 4:33, pushes this to the extreme with silence as sound.


With 4:33 as my point of reference, listening to Cartridge Music actually emphasized “silence” as sound, or as Cage points out in his writing, the importance of emptiness. Even with earphones in while listening to Cartridge Music, I could still hear the background sounds of the cafe I was in: the workings of a kitchen, the people sitting next to me, distant cafe music, silverware clinking:

And yet, these surrounding noises added to the experience of the listening to this piece of inconsistent rough mechanical sounds. Silence allows each listener to have a slightly different experience while listening to a composition. Essentially, through 4:33, Cartridge Music, and his writing, Cage puts a focus on time, unpredictability, and the constant noise surrounding us as the only requirements to successful experimental music.