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Posted on Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:25 a.m.

iPhone Ensemble concert shakes up concepts of music

By Roger LeLievre

In most concert halls, audience members are told to turn off their cell phones. But at the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble's debut concert on Wednesday night, it was the phones — iPhones, to be exact — that were making the music.

Students from the University of Michigan class “Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble,” believed to be the first such course in the world, performed original compositions to a full house of around 150 people on Wednesday night at the School of Music.

To get an iPhone to act as a musical instrument — albeit a non-traditional one — the device is programmed to play back sound information it receives from one of its multitude of sensors. The touch-screen, microphone, GPS, compass, wireless sensor and accelerometer can all be used so that when performers run their fingers across the display, blow air into the mic, or tilt or shake the phone, different sounds are created.

As the performance began, it was immediately clear that traditional concepts of music did not apply.

The snow swirling outside lent an ethereal feel to the proceedings as the 11 members of the ensemble (plus instructor Georg Essl), dressed in black and each wearing a pair of round speakers attached to their wrists, slowly took the stage for the first of five selections, “Shepard’s Escher.” The sound was a continuous, sci-fi kind of tone that changed in pitch as the performers moved in clockwise and counterclockwise circles on the stage. There were no notes, so there was no melody.

The second piece, “Controlling the Conversation,” sounded a bit like what might be heard if you tried to tune an AM radio to outer space, with static and electronic beeps and buzzes. Composer Matt Steele stood in front of the players and conducted, as if he had an orchestra at his command.

“Owen’s Lament” evoked a meditative, Middle Eastern feel, while “Feedback Etude” sounded like, well, feedback, but controlled and directed.

The 40-minute performance continued with “The Infinitesimal Ballad of Roy G. Biv,” which was the closest thing to traditional music on the bill. The iPhones provided a percussive, robotic sound as the differently-colored keypads made a kind of new-wave light show in the darkened room. To end the evening, the performers deployed into the auditorium to collect sound bites from audience members, which were then manipulated in various ways to form a coherent piece, titled “Self-Spoken.”

Wednesday’s composer/performers were Owen Campbell, Justin Crowell, Rishi Daftuar, Sivan Jacobovitz, Devin Kerr, Eric Lapointe, Colin Neville, Matthew Steele, Raphael Szymanski, Nathan Zukoff and Colin Zyskowski.

The audience, primed for something new and different, seemed delighted with what they heard.

Tom Mansell of Ann Arbor said he found the performance thought-provoking.

“This is a new way to watch people perform music, and this was a very one-of-a-kind performance where you take the sounds around you, you take accidents and chaos and put it all together into something that’s really unique, very personal and different,” he said.

“It struck me that it’s sort of the next wave,” observed Barbara Kaye of Ann Arbor. “Things are really changing. The combination of mobile technology and the music — it’s fascinating.”

Performer Justin Crowell, who plays a variety of “real” instruments as well as the iPhone, and who is a media arts master’s student at the U-M School of Music, said he finds the pop culture aspects of the ensemble's endeavor almost as interesting as the technology.

“The iPhone is a staple of pop culture,” Crowell said, “and we’re using it in a way that people don’t use it and people sort of get angry when we use it this way because they get upset about whether or not it’s art or music.”

Crowell said he’s heard from some music connoisseurs who are aghast at the thought of such musical heresy.

“People who wouldn’t even think of themselves as music purists, they say ‘go out and learn an instrument,’ which is funny, because most people (in the Ensemble) actually play instruments,” he said.

However, at least one musician in the audience, Laura Hogikyan of Ann Arbor, liked what she heard.

“I really loved the ‘Feedback Etude,’ how they had harmony redefined,” she said. “They basically redefined every concept of music, which I thought was really intelligent.”

But was it music? Hogikyan thought it was.

“I think it depends on what you define as music,” she said.

Roger LeLievre is a free-lance writer who covers music for