in Research

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.

  1. Excellent! I was really pleased that you pointed out the connection between Dialtones and our current desktop project. They are both about communications space, and the sonic world the emanates from that space. It also points out, as you mentioned, how we are interconnected in that space, and the various sounds, alerts, conversations that pass from one device to another. You also captured the connection with Cage very well, as referenced in the interview by Peter Traub.