From pocket to stage, music in the key of iPhone

From pocket to stage, music in the key of iPhone

From pocket to stage, music in the key of iPhone


The conductor raised his hands. A low droning sound arose, as if the chamber ensemble were tuning. Then the musicians began to swing their arms in wide circles, creating rising and falling waves of electronic sound. The Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra’s performance on Thursday used the most unusual of instruments: Apple iPhones amplified by speakers attached to small fingerless gloves.

Sometimes the sounds were otherworldly. Sometimes, they mimicked raindrops, bird songs or freeway traffic. In one piece, two performers blew into their phones to stir virtual wind chimes. In another, the instruments took on personalities based on the pitch, volume and frequency of the notes played — as if the musicians were flirting, teasing and admonishing each other. And gradually, the audience disobeyed instructions, pulling out their own iPhones and iPods to record the performance.
From the earliest days of the iPhone, applications that mimic musical instruments have topped the download charts. But the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra, with its avant-garde compositions and electronic renditions of popular songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” is trying to push the frontiers of the four-decade-old field of computer music.

While computer music composers once spent hours programming giant mainframes to synthesize a single sound, advances in hardware and software have brought powerful and easy-to-use music tools to personal computers and now, to smartphones. Ge Wang, the assistant professor of music who leads the two-year-old Stanford group, says the iPhone may be the first instrument — electronic or acoustic — that millions of people will carry in their pockets. “I can’t bring my guitar or my piano or my cello wherever I go, but I do have my iPhone at all times,” he said.

To pursue that goal, he co-founded a software company, Smule, which makes applications that turn iPhones into simple musical instruments. Although the consumer apps are less sophisticated than the custom creations of the Stanford orchestra, users have been fascinated by them.

The most popular Smule app, Ocarina, turns the iPhone into a flutelike instrument played by blowing across the microphone, touching virtual finger holes and tilting the phone. Another Smule app mimics a trombone. The two programmes, which cost 99 cents each, have been downloaded about two million times. Other software companies have hopped on the bandwagon. MooCowMusic, for example, makes apps like Pianist, Guitarist, Organist and Bassist, which sound like traditional instruments. With a programme called Bloom, created in part by Brian Eno, the musician and producer, users can tap their phones to create drone sounds that loop and become a piece of music.

While the Ocarina app is simple enough that anyone can easily play it, the Stanford orchestra is studying the potential of more complex iPhone instruments and pushing the limits of the type of music that can be made with them. To play one of the instruments, called the non-gamelan, musicians tilt the phone to create sounds of drums or bells and surround audience members to give them the feeling of being in the middle of a digital-age drum circle. Another instrument takes advantage of the iPhone’s touch screen. Musician taps the screen to create notes that resemble a piano or the chirps of the R2-D2 robot.

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