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.

Why study the history of experimental music?

Composer and sound artist John Cage once wrote in History of Experimental Music in the United States:

“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?” And I would answer, “In order to thicken the plot.”

Cage’s engagement with the history of music enabled him to think critically and intellectually about how to push the boundaries of music. For example, he pioneered a compositional approach called indeterminacy, in which the musician “reading” the music can interpret and perform the original written piece in an infinite number of ways. Cage’s approach is built upon a prior knowledge of other avant-garde artists, such as Edgard Varese.

It was Varese, who in 1936, imagined sound and new music beyond the boundaries of music as it was understood. He wrote in The Liberation of Sound:

“From Perspectives on New Music New Instruments and New Music When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, taking the place of the linear counterpoint, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived… There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”

Varese was describing a type of music that was not defined by notes or traditional rhythms.

As a student who has not had any exposure to the history of experimental music, I find Cage’s reasoning for studying the history of music to be continually relevant in my approach to experimental music. In today’s age where nearly any form of digital art is accessible within a click, context is often lost. I have heard experimental music before, but I didn’t have a particular appreciation for it. But understanding why and how Cage and Varese were trying to break away from the traditions of sound and composition has given me a greater appreciation and sense of intent, especially with using programs such as Max, where I have yet to use a conventional piano keyboard, a sheet of music, or even a grid that would be commonly found in many digital application. Sound has indeed been liberated according to the vision of Varese.

Prior to concerning myself with the history of experimental music, sound was simply just noise without a context. But even sound itself, does not need to be defined as something inherently musical. Learning about sound artists such as Bill Fontana and Janet Cardiff has expanded my understanding of how sound can and could be used.

In an interview with Peter Traub from Networked Music Review Fontana described:

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.

Fontana wants people to appreciate sounds as they are found in the natural environments. He believes that sound has taken a secondary role to music. Understanding Fontana’s work has evoked me to take the time to simply listen to the sounds in my surroundings and to think about them or think about how they could be employed.

Bill Fontana recording sound from a large hadron collider. Credit: Ars Electronica

Cardiff’s use of sound in her audio walks has challenged me to think about how sounds could be employed. She describes her work:

…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.

Learning from Cardiff’s work has taught me to think about sound as a virtual experience. As something that can transport a listener to a different place or time.

While I’m still an early student of experimental music, concerning myself with the history experimental music, past and present, has certainly “thickened the plot.” Whether it’s exploring music beyond the conventional notion of music or employing sound to impact the listener in a particular manner, sounds and the creation of sounds are not just arbitrary, but are done with intent.

Digital Landscapes

Speed, texture, and intensity are the three primary elements that I focused on in creating this audio-visual music video. The visuals began with reality, but quickly intensifies as the audio speeds up and the visuals distort and saturate. Throughout the piece, the audio shifts back in forth between quiet and loud, heightening the listeners awareness of the stark dynamic contrast.


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.