Dialtones, an unpredictable symphony

Golan Levin’s Dialtones: A Symphony, a concert performance that utilizes mobile phone ringtones from the audience members, explores the various aspects of unpredictability in music composition. In the performance, up to 60 telephones are called upon by the performers, generating an orchestra of ringtones. Dialtones balances control and chance; while Levin and fellow performers are able to target which cell phones will be dialed, only two-thirds of the phones are able to play back specific ringtones as decided by the performers. Levin did not have control over the ringtones of the other third of phones; this unpredictability was accounted for in the composition.

In an interview with Peter Traub, Levin acknowledges the similarities between his work and John Cage’s approach to chance, but he is clear in how the two approaches differ:

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

By anticipating different complexities of cell phone technologies, Levin was conscious of what he could and couldn’t control in the composition. These complexities included the delay between the dialing and receiving of phone calls, network failures, audience interference, and variability in control of ringtones (as mentioned earlier).


Although Dialtones was performed nearly two decades ago now, it still seems like a highly relevant performance in the context of today’s technological world. It’s a performance that tries to make sense of our complex and interconnected technologies and systems without trying to completely control every element of the system. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the work that we are doing in class in which we are trying to make sense of our digital spaces by exploring various aspects beyond its intended use. Both are a creative explorations of complex and interconnected technological systems.

Geekspeak with Pamela Z

Pamela Z, a composer and media artist, is known for her experimental approach to sound and music composition that entails sampling, looping, and signal processing. She often combines this in real time performance with her own live vocal processing, creating hauntingly complex and mesmerizing works of music and sound art.

Her piece Geekspeak contains audio interviews about the meaning of being a geek. These interviews are strategically composed through loops, layers, and fragments in a way that embodies the idea of geekiness. She begins with a series of repeated phrases, looped and overlaid in a dense fashion; the phrases “bit bot byte”, “operating system,” and “originally written as 32-bit able” are played over and over in a dizzying cascade.

It’s then suddenly interrupted with another phrase: “—the basic simple definition of a geek—“ and then the piece is interrupted again before sentence is finished. Another phrase follows “I don’t know how to articulate it really but” and then is interrupted again, this time with a very repetitious fragment of the word “I.” Her sampling of the word “I” is clever, as it captures the nuances of language patterns found in geek speak.

Throughout the piece, Z also captures different aspects of geek speak. There are snippets of more colloquial terms that are less technical, but are nonetheless still used by geeks.  ““You’re gonna be toast”, “I’d be pretty much be toast”, and “when you get the math wrong, you’d be toast” are played back to back, slightly overlapping each other.

More technical phrases are used, but with less fragmentation:

“Didn’t have the ability handle 32-bit data pass in the rom—sorry the machine’s had the ability to handle it before the operating system did and then eventually had to go back and write and operating system to see X where you have to be buy a little enabler patch 32-bit mode…”

Geekspeak captures the essence of geekiness with its compositional methods. Z splices colloquial speech into overlapping bits, we understand here that geekiness is more than just being technical, it’s a habit of speech. Smaller fragments capture the nuanced patterns of speech, and technically phrases are either looped in a dense dizzying fashion or given more time to breathe within the piece. It’s compositionally reminiscent of Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique in that it uses pauses and buildups in an compositionally evocative way; the compositional methods enhance the content and meaning found in the audio interview samples used in Geekspeek.

Fragments, errors, and overlaps: glitch art with jonCate

jonCate’s BOLD3RRR begins with a starkly contrasted screen recording and a voice over monologue performed lived:

“I want to reflect on real time. I want to reflect on real time renderings. I want to reflect on real time renderings across international time zones in fragments, errors, and overlaps. I want to play with recursivities. These feedback loops merge personal data and swim in associative forms from Chicago to Taipei to Boulder and back again”

As he speaks, the screen switches from various computer applications, to a live webcam recording of his face, to different social media feeds. It’s an interesting choice of images that accompany his voice over. Perhaps this is what Cate’s is referring to when he mentions personal data in his voice over. Periodically, throughout BOLD3RRR, Cate’s will commentate on the actions that are occurring within the computer.

“Skype call begins. Skype switch to share screen, applause.”

After six minutes, previously recorded phrases of jonCate’s voice over begin to loop and overlap on top of one another, the resulting recording becomes increasingly obfuscated. A lot is happening simultaneously here. While jonCate’s narrates some of the computer actions, some of the occurrences in the recorded video are explicitly what jonCate’s wants to reflect on: fragments, errors and overlaps.  All of this is, as Cate’s had said, in real time. It’s a blend of computer interactions (driven by jonCate), voice over, and live video processing–all of which are interacting with each other in tandem.

3:00 from jonCate’s BOLD3RRR

In his interview with Randall Packer, Cate’s describes the purpose behind his aesthetic:

“they are part of our lives, + that embeddedness has the word bed in there, we are in bed w/ them also, so they’re embedded in ways that are complex. they are not sterile, they’re imperfect, they are not clean, b/c they exist in the world, which is also imperfect. + so, i do believe that d1Ɍ+y̶ ̶N̶3WWW_M3DI as a way of lyfe + as an approach to artmaking is a way of foregrounding these faxxx, these realities, of our lived exxxperiences, + acknowledging how situated we all are w/ all of these systems, + artifacts that we have made, unmade && remade together.”

The glitchiness and the haphazardness of BOLD3RRR is, in a sense, a reflection of our real world, which has become entangled and inseparable from our digital world. jonCate’s pushes the imperfections of his digital work, which he describes as dirty new media, to embody his belief that our lived experiences are situated within a technological realm. jonCate’s subverts technology to capture the inseparable link between our digital and lived experiences.

Audio Walks with Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff is a sound artist who employs narration and binaural sound recordings to present her audience with an experience that is part fiction, part reality. Her website describes her technique:

…the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two. My voice gives directions but also relates thoughts and narrative elements, which instills in the listener a desire to continue and finish the walk.

Her 2004 piece, “Her Long Black Hair” is an excellent example of her work. A scene is described in New York City as the audience is directed to move through the city. Throughout the piece, Cardiff narrates the scene about a polar bear exhibit as she once witnessed it, and occasionally interweaves these experiences and observations with parts of fiction.

Cardiff: You can see the polar bear here on the left if you look down the alley. See the glass in the blue water? Walk over to the gate on the left so you can see him better. He’s swimming back and forth in Figure-Eights

[Recorded chatter from a crowd at the zoo]

Male Voice [Presumably the polar bear]: I was caught and taken back again. He took me to the black smith sho, where he had a ring made of Iron, which I wore on my right left.”

A polar bear from the Central Park Zoo in the 1980s.

Although I am unable to directly experience the audio walks the way they were intended to be experienced, I can see the audio-walk would be effective with physically experiencing the environment. If it weren’t for her decision to layer the narrative with recorded sounds from the environment, the listener would most likely experience the narration as a separate experience, isolated from the environment. But with the recorded chatter of the audience, the listener can be keenly aware that they space they occupy is the space that Cardiff wants them to experience. The listener does not directly interaction with the audio, but passively participates by following the instructions and observing the space they occupy along with Cardiff’s commentary. The layered sound effects in tandem with the presence of the real-life sounds make her work an effective augmented reality experience. It’s a beautiful poetic blend of spoken word, sound, fiction, reality, and passive participation from the audience.

Bill Fontana, the Sound Artist

Bill Fontana is a sound artist who works with found sounds found in our natural world. His work, according to Wikipedia, uses the “urban environment as a living source of musical information, all with the potential to conjure up visual imagery in the mind of the listener.” Fontana’s approach to his work involves a variety of techniques, such as transporting live sound from one context into another context. In an interview with Peter Traub from Networked Music Review, Fontana describes this reasoning behind these sound transportations:

In fact all of my sound sculptures are involved with not making random relocations but are carefully considered juxtapositions. For example… the sound of the sea from Normandy sent to the facade of the Arc de Triomphe during the 50th anniversary of D-Day. If one goes through the whole list of projects over the years, all the relocations have a conceptual link to the site. I am interested not only in the acoustic impact that a site has on the relocated sound, but also on the conceptual and psychological effects over time.

Fontana’s approach to sound is interesting. It’s not music that he is interested in creating, but rather sites of experiences that allow an audience to, through the perception of sound, think and feel about the original and transported destinations of the sounds. Fontana describes his objective to make his work happen through sound:

Besides the physical differences between sound in the air and vibrations in solids and underwater, most people find their everyday acoustic worlds hidden by lack of attention, and iTunes. I wish to bring these hidden aspects to the foreground.

What I find interesting about Fontana is how and why he cites Marcel Duchamp as an influence. Duchamp is famously known for his conceptual art that radically challenged the notion of art is and isn’t.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain challenged the conventions and definitions of art. (Source)

This is interesting because Fontana is described as a sound artist, not a musician. Like his predecessors, such as John Cage, Fontana has pushed the boundaries of the expectation and uses of sound. But with Fontana, music is no longer a concern for his pieces. It is simply called art, which I find more appropriate and in line with his objectives. The aesthetics of sounds are used in a manner to evoke the listener conceptually.

John Cage, an experimental music pioneer

In History of Experimental Music in the United States, American composer John Cage describes the nature of experimental music, provides a historical account of how composers have tried (and arguably failed) at creating experimental music, and gives his perspective on how one would approach composing experimental music.

What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order. Among these actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operation are useful. However, more essential than composing by means of chance operations, it seems to me now is composing in such a way that what one does is indeterminate of its performance.

Cage expressed a frustration with many current attempts at experimental music because he was observing that many composers were still adhering to formal methods of composition. He didn’t believe that these composers were truly experimental because their methods of creating music still involved too much of a method of control, which fell in the traditions of music. Experimental music, he believed, had to operate with unforeseen outcomes. Cage provides an example of how he would approach musical composition with indeterminacy:

I take a sheet of paper and place points on it. Next I make parallel lines on a transparency, say five parallel lines. I establish five categories of sound for the five lines, but I do not say which line is which category. The transparency may be placed on the sheet with points in any position and readings of the points may be taken with regard to all the characteristics one wishes to distinguish.

This form of composing is interesting because it allows the composer to give form to music without restraining it. The person performing the music can interpret the composition in a myriad of ways. Not only did Cage believe in the liberation of music through sound, but he was ardent in trying to liberate music from traditional compositional methods such as beats and time signatures.

In his piece, Cartridge Music, Cage demonstrates his experimentation with multiple layers of sound that explore rhythms and intensities. These rhythms, however, are not bounded by beats, but I describe them as rhythms because there is a conscious use of gaps between the sounds. Sonically, it resembles Luigi Russolo’s Risveglio di una Citta in that the noises seem to exist within the physical and organic world. With each sound, I find myself trying to visually pinpoint what the objects being used to make the sounds may look like. Are the sounds made from metal, are they spring like, or do they look like bicycle chains? The sounds do not sound completely foreign.

His music sounds like it could have been created from bicycle chains. Source: http://www.atomiczombie.com/tutorials/Bike%20Chain%20Basics/Figure%201.jpg

Cartridge Music is musical, especially if we think of music as organized sounds. But I wonder if I only think that because I am given the intellectual context for the sounds. There is a level of intellectual capacity that is needed to appreciate Cage’s work, but that’s only because one needs to be able to break away from the traditions of music. Perhaps that level of effort wouldn’t be necessary if we had been viewing music through a different angle to begin with. Nevertheless, Cage is able to move away from the traditions precisely because he is, as we discussed in the last class, aware of the traditions.

Response to Edgard Varese’s “Liberation of Sound”

In Edgard Varese’s Liberation of Sound, Varese is describing the new boundaries of music that will be created through the use of machines. “The new musical apparatus,” he describes, will be “able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants: chords, their arrangements, their spacings, that is, their oxygenation.”  Much like Luigi Russolo, Varese was interested in exploring the capabilities of sound beyond the conventional. Russolo and Varese had both thought of machinery as a means to invent new sounds, but the way they envisioned machinery’s involvement was a bit different. Russolo had thought of noise as a product of machinery; crackles and rumbles were produced my machine-like instruments. Varese’s imagined the machine as something that a composer could put his score through and the machine “will faithfully transmit the musical content to the listener.”

Today, we can think of the role the music producer as the composer that was described by Varese, who had also accurately predicted that traditional music notation would be dated and that new graphical representations of music notation would have to be invented. He imagined that music notation would be seismographic. With the advent of digital audio workstations, music is often visually represented through sound waves and other graphical representation.

Though computers play a major role in nearly all recorded music today, Varese might be disappointed in how it has been shaped. He was constantly trying to challenge musical conventions, breaking from the rules. But toward the end of Liberation of Sound, Varese describes his reservations: “I am afraid it will not be long before some musical mortician begins embalming electronic music in rules.“ Music today is created through machines, but still adheres to western traditions and pop conventions. Varese’s Poeme Electronique explores all the new oddities and new frontiers of experimental music and stylistically reminds me of something bleak and space-age like. He was successful in creating art that pushed the boundaries, but I’m curious to see what he would think of the state of music today.

A response to Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noise: Futurist Manifesto”

Luigi Russolo’s Manifesto explores the possibility of sound beyond the musical paradigms established by the Greeks. Russolo’s fascination with sound begins with the advent of machinery in the 19th century. He claims, “For several centuries, life went on silently, or mutedly. The loudest noises were neither intense, nor prolonged nor varied…This is why man was thoroughly amazed by the first sounds he obtained out of a hole in reeds or a stretched string.” Noise, however, is more than just what it appears to be on the surface level. Russolo describes that “musical art aims at the shrilliest, strangest and most dissonant amalgams of sound” and music has “tried to obtain the most complex succession of dissonant chords.” In his view, noise-sound is the expected progression of music as an art form. The strangest sounds have been achieved within the current realm of music theory; music will only push the boundaries through noises found outside of traditional instruments.


Accepting every day sounds as compositional material, in many ways, allows us to push how we experience and express ourselves through musical composition. Music today is often perceived as something to provide pleasure, perhaps this has always been the case for all art for the common person who is not interested in interrogating it on an intellectual level. But there are pieces of music, much like art, that aren’t necessarily intended to provide pleasure. Sometimes the existence of certain types of music and art exist for us to experience a wide array of emotions beyond joy, such as discomfort, shock, or to put us in different states of mind—curious, reflective, or contemplative. He even said himself that he has no intention of refuting the objection of noise as necessarily unpleasant. Russolo’s “Risveglio di una Citta” demonstrates this by exhibiting a variety of noise textures, which can be described as bubbly, rough, and course. While I do not “enjoy” the piece itself, I find myself in a constant state of curiosity while listening to it, constantly questioning just how he managed to produce these noises. That curiosity alone is enough for me to find “Risveglio di una Citta” as intriguing and satisfying.