Cell phones at center of global music-making

STANFORD (US)—With more than four billion cell phones—including about 25 million iPhones—in the world, imagine the music that could be made if each were converted into a tiny instrument. Ge Wang, creator of the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra, says the world is on the cusp of a “mobile renaissance [or] maybe a new mobile revolution.”

Wang believes cell phones are becoming so powerful that we “cannot ignore them anymore as platforms for creativity. . . . It levels the playing ground in some ways, because everyone has a cell phone.”

But the cell phone isn’t only an ensemble instrument. Thanks to the company Wang cofounded in 2008, Sonic Mule (SMULE), a startup exploring interactive sonic media, Wang has converted his iPhone into a 12,000-year-old clay wind instrument, the ocarina. New York Times writer David Pogue called the ocarina application “one of the most magical programs I’ve ever seen for the iPhone, and probably for any computer.” It’s also one of the most popular.

“The ocarina app we developed at SMULE has, since it was launched last November, been downloaded more than 600,000 times,” says Wang, assistant professor of music at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

“Most of these half-a-million users, we don’t think they are professional musicians or performers or people who would think of themselves as artists or musicians; they are simply people who like music. They can pull out the ocarina and play it while they are waiting to get milk at the supermarket. They can play while they are waiting for the bus. They can play during family gatherings.

“You can actually hear the world learn music through this,” says Wang, referring to another part of the ocarina app: a globe of the world displays on the screen, with points of light glowing; each point represents someone, somewhere, who has recently used the ocarina app. Some parts of the globe—parts of North America, in particular—seem to be a continuous field of light. Other remote areas may display a few glowing points.

“This is the first instrument that I know that can allow other users of the same instrument to actually hear each other play,” says Wang.

Wang becomes almost messianic when talking about “types of music and music-making that the world has never heard.”

“We’re literally at the beginning of this,” he says, explaining that he envisions “hundreds, thousands more people participating” in making music together.

At Stanford, Wang’s cell phone orchestra, known as MoPhO, is exploring what that could mean. Michael Berger, a MoPhO performer and doctoral student in musical arts and composition, says the concept is “postmodern, in a sense, because it’s using a device that was not designed to make music and using it as a musical interface.”
The sound the orchestra produces is unearthly—the sort of hypnotic drone you might hear from the chanting of state-of-the-art Tibetan monks.

“One vision for the future is that more people would use phones to make music—to perform it, to compose it, but also to share it and to play together,” he says. “It’s definitely a lot of fun.”

It’s portable, too. “A mobile marching band isn’t far off,” he chuckles.

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