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Help! My Ears Are Ringing

DiscoblogBy Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)September 22, 2006 3:00 AM


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For most of us, the phrase “music technology” probably conjures up images of synthesizers, samplers, mixers, and other gizmos that can create and manipulate sound. But apparently these options didn’t quite cut it for composer David Baker at Indiana University. He’s turning to a new source of electronic music: cell phones.

Baker’s new composition, Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra, will premiere at the opening of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 20th anniversary season. The orchestra’s percussionists will contribute a few ring tones from the stage while audience members are invited to turn their phones on and off, adjust the volume, and of course, allow them to ring at random. No word yet on whether concertgoers will earn dirty looks for carrying on a phone conversation during the piece.

The music of ambient noise follows a tradition dating back to John Cage, whose 1952 work 4'33" requires the performer to clock out four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ worth of nothing while the audience listens intently to the unscripted background soundscape. Legend has it that Cage was inspired to write the piece after visiting Harvard’s anechoic chamber, designed to eliminate all external noise and minimize sound reflection within the space. Even there, the story goes, he couldn’t find complete silence: his darned circulatory and nervous systems kept right on humming. (While others have been able to hear their own heartbeats in anechoic chambers, the claim that it's possible to hear the nervous system is more dubious. It has been suggested that Cage may have suffered from mild tinnitus.)

And now, if you’ll pardon the interruption, I have to take this call.

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