Sim-phone-ya orchestra

Sunday 16th October 2011

MOST people need no reminder about mobile phones in the theatre, cinema or concert hall. Switching them to silent mode – or off completely – has become standard behaviour. Not ten years ago, however, when an enraged conductor responded to an electronic interruption by leaving the stage and cancelling the rest of the evening’s entertainment.

Not long afterwards, in the gentlemen’s toilet of Cheltenham Town Hall, a plot was hatched which led to my own (landline) phone ringing fifty times during a tiring day doing radio interviews on stations from Adelaide to Washington.

“I’ve had an idea,” the Music Festival administrator told me. “How would you like to get together an orchestra of mobile phones?”

I called Simon, a composer friend I’d worked with on another zany project.

“We’re thinking of naming it the New Ring Cycle.”

His chuckle was enough. Samsung sponsored the event, lending us thirty state-of-the-art instruments. We rehearsed in the upstairs room of a pub. Dexterity of fingers was more important than musical talent, but they were a stubborn lot, our scratch ensemble, determined to be finger perfect. They soon taught me to stop clowning about and take it seriously.

We borrowed from Wagner: four movements: Ring-Hold, Walk-yer-ear, Signal Freed and Gottadamnmessagewhorung.

Attired in black and white, the players made a formal entrance and arranged their scores (of numbers) on music stands. The leader carried a violin case, taking out his phone with due care and solemnity. One player inserted a broomstick into a leather double-bass case for added stiffness.

The audience smiled as the orchestra tuned up, the leader having given everyone a 7 to press. At one point my baton was a banana.

A film crew from Germany recorded the world première – and only performance. Admission was free. Over a hundred turned up, playing their ring tones in an audience participation section that lacked both amplification and harmony.

The music is a delight, the CD a treasured possession.

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