Spektral Quartet Premieres the Cure for the Common Ringtone

Spektral Press Photo 2012 smallThe Spektral Quartet has come up with the cure for the common ringtone – the Mobile Miniatures Project, in which the ensemble has commissioned 47 composers from the world of classical, pop, and jazz music to write ringtones, alarms, and alerts for cell phones. The quartet premiered these works on March 29 during an innovative release party at Constellation.

So how do you present a suite of tiny tunes which vary in length from one second text message alerts to 40 second ringtones? With multimedia presentations and a scavenger hunt, of course. The Spektral Quartet (J Austin Wulliman and  Aurelien Penderzoli violins, Doyle Armbrust, viola, and Russell Rolen, cello) performed the works in several sets throughout the evening. During the sets, the ensemble told anecdotes about themselves, the music, and the composers.  My favorite story was about Shulamit Ran, who created a series of 13 pieces even though the quartet only requested one submission from each composer.  Ran (who was sitting right next to me in the audience!) said that writing the ringtones was like eating potato chips.  She couldn’t stop herself after just one.

An audio curated phoneIn between performances, audience members were encouraged to explore iPad listening stations and audio curated phones. The iPads displayed the Mobile Miniatures website where people could sample the music and explore the biographies of the composers. There were about eight audio curated phones of the “vintage” landline sort, like a lips phone which was stylish in the 80s, and some with rotary dials which dinosaurs like me used back in the Stone Age.  The folks who created the audio masterpieces included Naomi Beckwith, who is the Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Idris Goodwin, a playwright and co- founder of the “Louder Than a Bomb” teen poetry slam; and Sumanth Gopinath, who wrote the book The Ringtone Dialectic, which explores ringtones and their effect on cultural production.  Each of the phones played different tidbits of music and sound effects. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hear some of the audio due to the  crowd noise.

Another unique component of the event was the “Composers be Composin’” table manned by Chicago composers Marcos Balter and Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Audience members were invited to write ideas for ringtones on bits of paper and toss them into a bucket . Each composer chose an idea and wrote a new original ringtone which the quartet performed at the end of the evening. A particularly entertaining one was a ringtone for when your ex calls and you know you shouldn’t answer the phone.

Audience members explore the listening stationsThe thread that tied the event together was the scavenger hunt. Each audience member received a sheet of paper with fun questions and activities such as “Name a ringtone composer who has won a Pulitzer Prize” and “Introduce yourself to a Spektral Quartet board member. Get his/her initials.” Some activities encouraged social media engagement, like taking a selfie with a stranger and sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. Points were earned for each  correct answer, and the winners received prizes such as a free download of the Mobile Miniatures and the Spektral Quartet’s recent debut album, Chambers. The game was an entertaining way to connect the audience with each other, the music, the composers in attendance, and the quartet members. The hard-working winner earned about 67 points, which put my meager 37 score attempt to shame.

As for the Mobile Miniatures themselves, they really are tiny masterpieces. I love Shulamit Ran’s “Rite of Ring” which is a cheeky nod to Stravinsky’s similarly titled work , and Tomàs Gueglio’s “1799” , which the composer aptly described as Bugs Bunny’s take on Haydn. There’s also Matt Marks’s “Wake the F__k Up”, which features some vicious riffs and the Spektral guys shouting exactly what the title hints at. I’ve had that one stuck in my head for days.

The whole Mobile Miniatures concept is a bit of brilliance. As the quartet mentioned to the audience, it’s a way to have mini concerts all over the place. Not to mention that it’s some free promotion for the quartet and the composers. Maybe someone is standing at a crowded bus stop, and her phone busts out with Dominic Johnson’s “Tsar Bomba”. Everyone there will hear the music, and maybe one of those people might even want to know what that cool ringtone is. Score a new fan for contemporary classical music and the Spektral Quartet.

You can check out the extremely cool promo video for the Mobile Miniatures below and explore even more information about the project here.

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