Telephone: the single made from phone sounds

Most people want to switch telephone sounds off as soon as they hear them. Or at least that used to be the case.  People tended to prefer encroachment on their privacy by an uninvited guest to prolonged exposure to the nagging jangle of the dog and bone.  In our era, largely as a result of the phone’s mobility, it is more the case that people want their devices to be heard by others at all costs: now callers function as triggers of personally significant musical events for their receivers. Having said that, the cacophony emitted by the average cellphone user is not without its place within the musical hierarchy of the urban jungle. The low frequency growls of the engines of trains and buses are happily balanced by the shrill twitterings of the average ringtone. sandwiching the inane chatter in between.

Like Cecil Sharp or Bela Bartok, who stockpiled recordings of their respective folk heritages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries I could elevate myself here by suggesting that in this piece I am preserving the folklore of the phone lest we forget what these sounds once symbolized for our culture. Some older telephone rings have already been recycled as modern mobile phone ringtones, their sonorities disconcertingly divorced from the mechanics that produced them. An unlikely fragment of a nineteenth century classical guitar piece becomes a soundmark for a certain Finnish mobile magnate. These are the sounds that embody a culture of anticipation, the soundtrack to waiting in our society: perhaps that’s why they work so well in a piece which has been modelled on a dance music structure.

As far as possible I have allowed the sounds ‘to be themselves’. I believed that I could locate their musicality if I experimented for long enough.  I even wrote a draft score in traditional musical notation at one point to convince myself of the musical logic I had found. I was surprised that so many of the sounds associated with telephones had a latent musicality, from the pulsating F sharp of the typical ‘engaged’ tone to the rhythmically insistent (a al William Tell) sawtooth wave of mobile phone interference (always on A incidentally). Like car horns many ‘famous’ rings contain major and minor thirds – an embarrassment of riches for the composer who hates to break with tradition. ‘Mary had a little lamb’ (or ‘Merrily we roll along’ depending on which childhood you had) isn’t a nursery song at all here, it’s a telephone number made audible. My only difficulty was in locating any very low sounds to fill out the bottom end (the now classic cellphone ‘vibrate’ sound being the exception), so the relentless beat you hear here is me banging on a table in my frustration at this problem.

Perhaps it’s best to view this piece as an invention, a well-oiled machine set in motion  by the listener (the sound of the coin going into a slot at the beginning should help to encourage this image). Listen to its workings – it’s surprising what you can hear. Incidentally I appreciate that few people now would consider the playback of recordings to be akin to switching on a machine, so accustomed have we become to viewing musical events only in terms of recordings. To my mind however, listening to records is no different to turning on a vacuum cleaner or a drill (except that the latter implements ultimately admit of more physical participation).