No Time for a Symphony? Try a Ringtone, Says Spektral Quartet

Monday, March 31, 2014 - 12:00 AM

In one corner: the symphony, grand opera and string quartet. In the opposite: viral videos, news snacking and Twitter's 140 characters.

In a short-attention-span culture, these two ends of the cultural landscape – pitting deliberate contemplation against extreme brevity – are often seen to inhabit vastly different worlds.

But a string quartet from Chicago is seeking to create a bridge of sorts. The Spektral Quartet has commissioned 47 composers to write ringtones, alarms and text message alerts for cellphones. Each of the “Mobile Miniatures,” as they're called, lasts no more than 40 seconds, beating Chopin’s Minute Waltz by a third, and giving Webern some stiff competition for his concise Bagatelles

The Spektral, which was founded in 2010, saw the project first as a chance to promote some hometown composers. The group approached several with local ties (Mason Bates, Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran) and then expanded the roster to include a handful of New Yorkers (David Lang, Nico Muhly, Ted Hearne), moonlighting indie-rockers (Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, Olga Bell of Dirty Projectors), and various others.

“This came out of the twin desires of commissioning new pieces and working with a community of composers,” Spektral cellist Russell Rolen said in a phone interview. “We’re always looking to connect with an old genre – the string quartet has been around for 250 years – and make it something that works in modern society with modern technology.”

The ringtones, which went on sale on Saturday at SpektralQuartet.com, are priced at $.50 each or $20 for the entire anthology. A Kickstarter campaign provided seed funding, half of which covered a $100 honorarium for each of the 47 composers.

The ringtones' musical styles vary considerably. Bell of the art-rock band Dirty Projectors contributed a slow, gentle, 30-second alarm. “I’ve always been invested in the music I use for my alarm,” she said of the piece, in which she whispers "wake up" against a quietly unfolding stream of chords. “I tried to make mine as calm and soothing as possible. It sort of grows at the end so it’s something that would probably rouse you from a deep REM sleep.”

“If you’re relatively untrained as a composer as I am, it’s a nice short assignment,” added Bell, who in fact studied music at the New England Conservatory.

To some extent, the Spektral Quartet project recalls the ringtone's early heyday in the early- to mid-2000s, when music fans first started downloading snippets of their favorite songs and having them play whenever their phones rang. Custom ringtones were a temporary windfall for the recording industry and even the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes embraced the trend, in 2005 launching Booseytones.com, a website featuring some 300 works by its composers. But the ringtone as a discrete format peaked around 2007, after which consumers began to create their own customized sounds by simply downloading songs as MP3 files.

“This was a very useful and fun service when custom ringtones were in their heyday, but now the need has faded,” said Patrick Gullo, a spokesman for Boosey & Hawkes. Still, as a compositional exercise, "it sounds fun, yet challenging," Gullo added, "to compose something you can listen to over and over (and not get bored with) that is only a few seconds long.”

The Spektral Quartet, which is currently in residence at the University of Chicago, sees the project as an entry-point to contemporary music. Said Rolen: "We hope a person might hear the music out in the café, on the subway or whatever and people ask their friend, ‘hey, what’s that?' It’s an opportunity for people, in a very bite-sized way, to get into this music and these composers and explore their catalog. Hopefully they’ll seek it out and will come to a concert.”

Below is the full sampling of the Mobile Miniatures catalog:

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