Normally my iPhone ringer is set firmly to "off," but I recently changed it to a new piece by the esteemed composer and one-time Pulitzer finalist Augusta Read Thomas. It's a 35-second, anxious tangle of pizzicato and odd-angled violin and cello lines called "You're Just About to Miss Your Call!" It really captures the existential panic that its title describes.
Thomas's piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet, an enterprising Chicago-based string ensemble that recently decided it wanted to populate the world's iPhones with contemporary classical music. For what they're calling the Mobile Miniatures project ("Your mobile phone is our newest concert venue"), they contacted 46 composers. For anyone who follows the world of contemporary classical, it's an embarrassment of riches: everyone from Bang On A Can co-founder David Lang to Nico Muhly to indie figures like Deerhoof's Greg Saunier and Julia Holter.
"We were brainstorming about ways to get past the people that already fill up our concerts to new audiences," says Doyle Armbrust, the quartet's violist, "and we decided on mobile phones, which can bring the composers' music to new people without someone having to step into a concert to do it."
On the face of it, this idea has the same endearingly second-hand feel to it that characterizes a lot of "modern" classical music initiatives: A good seven years after the idea of "ringtone culture" has come and gone—here comes the classical industry! But Armbrust sees the project in a different light. "Our friend Sumanth [Gopinath] actually wrote a book about ringtone culture, and how it peaked in 2008. It's been a downward trend every since," Armbrust says. "The thing is, there is a big divide between a 30-second capture of Kanye and a piece that is specifically written in this constraint of that amount of time."
The most creative rings come from composers who responded enthusiastically to that confinement. "My favorite pieces were from people who really took to heart the fact that the ring would feed back on itself," Armbrust says. "Jonathan Kirk wrote a piece where we're all essentially playing the same sixteenth-note material but at three clicks' different pace at the same time, so it gradually phases out. When that cycles back it has this sort of reverse-envelope feeling to it." Julia Holter, he says, "wrote us something that I would personally use as a wake-up alarm. It's this extremely slow rising 7th chord."
Composing a quartet for consumer smartphones is inherently ridiculous—and some of the pieces acknowledge that. Shulamit Ran's "Iowa Bells" relies on the high, thin sounds we associate with old-timey test tones: violin harmonics, glockenspiel. Ted Hearne's "Copycat Crimes" plays with our programmed expectations for a phone ring; a regularly repeated phrase, separated by evenly spaced pauses. (His changes, almost imperceptibly, with each iteration.)
Olga Bell, of Dirty Projectors and this year's spectacular solo album Krai, contributed a wake-up alarm called "Arousal In D" that, Armbrust laughs, "you might not want to listen to with your parents in the room, because it's a little sexy." (Though: "It is a great way to wake up, I can attest to that.") Matt Marks' "Wake the Fuck Up!" is self-explanatory: It's the quartet, shouting "wake the fuck up!" in their "best Mastodon voices." There's also, preciously, a "clean" version.
So now that the pieces exist, what does Armbrust hope happens to them? "We've put up posters in coffee shops with tear-off tags on them to get people downloading them, but [we want it to be] more grassroots than that," he says. "The idea is that someone is on the subway here, their phone's going to ring, and someone's going to say 'Hey, what is that? This is awesome.'"