By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – Among life’s minor annoyances are all too many ringtones — cheesy, over-played 1980s pop songs or the boring electronic combinations pre-programmed by the phone companies.
The Spektral Quartet believes it has just the antidote: Mobile Miniatures. It has recorded more than 60 jazzy, gentle and edgy ringtones, alerts and wake-up alarms for mobile phones, all freshly created by 46 composers across the U.S. Beginning March 29, they will be available for 50 cents apiece or $20 for the set at spektralquartet.com.
For the Chicago-based string ensemble, the project is not only a way to provide a practical product to phone users, but it is also an opportunity to take contemporary classical music into a new realm, work with a broad swath of composers, and build the quartet’s profile along the way.
With classical music facing aging audiences and declining ticket sales, cellist Russell Rolen said, this initiative provides an innovative way to circumvent conventional concert formats and take classical music directly to listeners of all kinds. He compared it to public art, which is seen every day by both art lovers and non-art lovers.
“So, for us,” Rolen said, “this is a way to get these composers’ names and, frankly, our name, but more than any of that, just the music itself, out into the world in a way that doesn’t require someone to come into the concert hall.”
Getting rich, however, is not among the group’s goals. Spektral undertook a Kickstarter campaign to partially cover the $100 honorarium that went to each composer as well as the recording and production costs. “I would be delighted if it brings in as much as we spent on it,” the cellist said.
The project is by no means the first time that classical music has crossed into the world of ringtones. Apple’s iTunes, for example, offers 45 free classical ringtones, featuring excerpts from such familiar selections as Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and Pachelbel’s Canon.
As part of the American Composers Orchestra’s annual Underwood New Music Readings, an audience choice award offers a composer an opportunity to write an original ringtone that is made available for free to everyone who voted. Last year’s winner was Nina Young, a New York-based electro-acoustic composer who has written works for such groups as the Orkest de Ereprijs and JACK Quartet.
But Spektral believes Mobile Miniatures is the most ambitious ringtone project to involve custom commissions. Rolen said the idea sprang from the group’s focus on contemporary music and its members’ growing reliance on their ever more sophisticated phones. “It’s finding a nexus between the arts and technology which interests us,” he said.
In choosing composers, the quartet sought both well-known names and up-and-comers working in a broad array of styles and musical approaches. About half are from Chicago and the rest are based across the rest of the country.
“It’s really just our friends and a network of people that we’ve worked with before,” Rolen said. “We’ve all played a lot of contemporary music, so we have friends all over the country who are composers.”
With an iPhone-dictated maximum length of just 40 seconds for a ringtone, Spektral expected some resistance to the project. “We thought some composers might think that it’s not quite right for their music,” Rolen said, “because it’s such a short format and it’s certainly not a traditional way to put classical music out in the world.”
But the opposite proved true. The cellist said the selected composers were “overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” writing music that lasts from one second for a text alert to ringtones going the full 40 seconds.
She was excited to try her hand at composing for string quartet and at writing such a compact work. Her haunting contribution combines slow chant-like vocalizations with an extended string line and the whispered words, “Wake up.”
“Well, what I wrote could become someone’s ringtone or alarm,” Bell said via e-mail, “which means they would hear it every day, which strikes me as a massive opportunity and a crazy luxury for any piece of ‘new music.'”
David Lang, Musical America‘s 2013 composer of the year, also did not hesitate to take part, writing a breezily rhythmic string riff. He is co-founder and co-artistic director of the New York collective Bang on a Can, a leading catalyst and promoter of new music for more than 25 years.
“Sometimes it is hard to imagine what to do for an orchestra, because I don’t have one at home,” Lang said via e-mail. “But I do have a phone and it rings all day, so it was easy and in a way personally empowering to imagine what would make its ring a little less annoying.”
Other participants include Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands, Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founder Reneé Baker, cross-genre innovator Nico Muhly, Black Earth Ensemble founder Nicole Mitchell, MacArthur “genius grant” winner George Lewis, and avant-pop recording artist Julia Holter.
“I’ve had them on my phone, testing them, for the last week or two,” Rolen said of the ringtones, “and I keep cycling through them and assigning them to different functions. The one that just rang when you called (by Tomás Gueglio) just made me smile, because we’re singing in it and it’s just kind of odd and absurd and wonderful.”
Bell is convinced that if Mozart were alive today, he would have been one of the eager contributors to Mobile Minatures.
“Mozart’s music strikes me as the work of someone motivated by utility as much as by pleasure,” she said, “and this project is all about useful music that does its thing in short order.”
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.