Digital practitioner interview: Georg Essl on the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble

by Korey Jackson on September 7, 2010

Today we continue dcb’s series of interviews with practitioners of digital projects on the University of Michigan campus.  This mini-series is intended to showcase the work of digital practitioners across our campus and connect their research endeavors to the publications of digitalculturebooks series.  This interview is with Georg Essl, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and in the Department of Music, on the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble.  The project’s website is

digitalculturebooks: Tell us a bit about how the Mobile Phone Ensemble works and what instruments the members of the orchestra are using.

Georg Essl: The key concept behind the mobile phone ensemble (“MoPho” for short) is the idea that mobile commodity devices really can serve as musical instruments. We use iPhones, iPod Touches and also iPads, and we are working hard to expand the types of smart phones and tablet hardware we can support. Hopefully we will very soon be able to use Android phones, for example. In addition to the phones we also use local amplification in the form of small battery-powered speakers, which we have sewn onto wristbands. Mobility is an important aspect so we really want to keep everything, including the amplification, with the performer. We have also started to experiment with small additional hardware that augment the mobile devices.

How did the project start on the University of Michigan campus?

I have been working on the idea of mobile phones as musical instruments since about 2004 and this really has been one of my main projects since. So when I came to the University of Michigan it was rather natural to consider starting an ensemble. In addition I had the opportunity to design a course around the topic.



How much of the MoPho project has a foundation in the idea of Laptop Orchestras?

We do owe quite a bit to various precursors. Already on the mobile phone side artists such as Golan Levin showed early on how one can do interesting art projects. He had a very influential concert project called DialTones in which he used mobile phone ringtones as voices in an audience-centered piece. The triggering of the tones was controlled externally, so the experience was largely passive. But it was a beautiful and inspiring piece and showed that the mobile device should be taken seriously for music making.

Really much of what came after had to do with attempts to try to make interaction on the device itself the driving force. One can think of turning the mobile phone from a passive speaker into an actual autonomous instrument. The idea of active performance commodity ensembles has a rich history. I think the breakthrough was the Princeton Laptop Orchestra of Perry Cook and Dan Trueman. Numerous graduate students also had a big part in making it a success, including Ge Wang, Scott Smallwood, and Rebecca Fiebrink. Ge Wang would then bring the concept with him to Stanford when he moved there. In fact one of the important precursors of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra is the Lucid Dreams Ensemble, which a former Michigan faculty, composer Virgil Moorefield had founded at Northwestern University. There certainly are very strong conceptual ties. The idea of using commodity hardware is the same, and many observations and lessons learned by laptop ensembles can often inform, with modifications, how we can do things with mobile devices.

The first mobile phone ensemble was founded by Ge Wang, Henri Penttinen and myself at Stanford University in 2008. Since a number of other ensembles have emerged. Henri has one in Helsinki, and I ran one in Berlin. In many ways I think the idea was in the air, and the emergence of sensibly fast mobile smart phones with built-in accelerometers such as the Nokia N95 and then the iPhone made it reality.

What have the students in the two courses related to the MoPho project taken away from their experience with it?

It has actually only been one course so far, but I am preparing to teach a similar though somewhat redesigned course this fall. On the broadest level my intention was a blurring of boundaries. Traditionally, we think of composers, instrument builders and performers as separate people. In many ways I think that the nature of programmable electronic instruments no longer requires this separation and in fact there is a large benefit in joining these roles. “Composing” the instrument can be as much part of the performance as composing the score and composing the stage performance. Traditional musical instruments are very refined but also very static. We are replacing this static nature with something that is dynamic and can change its nature very quickly. This really is what electronics adds. It opens up the space of the possible. So students got to learn all the sides to what it means to work with technology, programming, designing user interfaces, setting up realtime-audio and so forth. At the same time there is also the importance of embedding the technology in musical performance, in the conception of a piece and how one can highlight ideas from the strengths of this particular setup. Certainly mobile phone ensembles are not at their best if they try to mimic traditional ensembles, but rather when they explore what it means to be an ensemble on its own inherent characteristics, some of which go beyond, some of which lag behind what traditional instruments can do.



What have the students involved with this project taught you?

Thinking of mobile phones as musical instruments seems a little quirky. I was really surprised how the students from the beginning understood what it was about, and the course had a very exploratory feel to it. The students knew that no one really knew yet what it means to play such an ensemble, and so we were discovering, while trying to learn from what all these things meant before. But one thing that surprised me most was the interest in the technical side of things. I had more music majors than engineers [in the course] and my worry was a possible aversion to the nuts-and-bolts aspect of understanding and molding technology for our needs. But at the end of the course I actually got feedback from students about how they wanted to learn more about programming mobile phones. I think this is excellent and I plan to do more in that direction this coming fall.

What about the practice of digital music has this project taught you and the members of the ensemble?

New ensembles have an interesting problem. They are not understood. By this I mean that people have not seen them elsewhere and there is no established notion [of] what it is supposed to mean. I definitely see this in the reactions we get to concerts sometimes. For me that is actually a very rewarding aspect of this work. We have the benefit of being in an exploratory phase. But we are also very conscious that the pieces we play have to try hard to communicate themselves. We do not want to give the impression that people just push buttons to trigger sounds or wave the device in the air without being clear why that has meaning with respect to the sound that emerges. This extra demand for explanation and clarity is a strong driver in how we learn to play digital music live with these kinds of devices. Another aspect that I find really valuable is immediacy and performativity. Digital music now really is emerging from a tradition of offline editing and tape music and develops a strong live presence. The technology is so fast that we are no longer forced to wait for the results, but they appear immediately. Hence rather than emphasize scripting music, we can go, perhaps back, to starting with playing music. We can explore in a very direct sense and really, that is what making music has been for a long time. I think there is real hope that people will welcome this emerging notion of digital music, music that is accessible on commodity devices, yet offers a very broad playing field of new musical experiences.


Photos courtesy of Flickr user Kirsty Komuso, reproduced with a Creative Commons License

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