Mobile Phone Orchestra: Music On The Move A group of researchers at Stanford University has formed a new kind of orchestra to push the boundaries of how music is made. The instruments? Mobile phones.
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Mobile Phone Orchestra: Music On The Move

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Mobile Phone Orchestra: Music On The Move

Mobile Phone Orchestra: Music On The Move

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Here's another tune rocketing up the charts. This is a composition called "Drone," and it's written for some rather unusual instruments. Don't look for them in a music store.

(Soundbite of song "Drone")

MEGAN MEYER: This otherworldly music you're hearing is coming from an orchestra made up of mobile phones, but they aren't just any mobile phones. These are smart phones.

LYDEN: Reporter Megan Meyer.

MEYER: The composer and director of this piece Ge Wang. He's a professor at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. This orchestra was born out of another one, where the players use laptops.

Professor GE WANG (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford University): We actually have a formal course here at Stanford that's the Laptop Orchestra, and we are currently looking to expand that with the Mobile Phone Orchestra.

MEYER: Smart phones have all sorts of high-tech tools on them. Depending on the model, they can come equipped with GPS systems, multi-touch screens or tilt sensors. Wang and his colleagues write code that hijacks these tools to reveal their musical potential.

(Soundbite of music)

MEYER: Wang helped design the Ocarina app. It's a program that transforms the iPhone into an ancient clay flute.

Mr. WANG: I'm actually just holding the iPhone here as I might a sandwich, and I'm placing four fingers on the multi-touch screen. You would literally blow into the phone, in the microphone, and use the multi-touch to actually choose the different pitches by holding down different finger holes that are rendered on the screen. You would use the tilt sensor to control the amount of vibrato.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WANG: So that's actually played on Ocarina on the iPhone.

MEYER: You can think of the phone as a pocket synthesizer. Wang and his colleagues have also programmed the smart phones to respond to sounds around them.

Mr. WANG: For example, for a phone to be able to track the pitch at which someone's singing or to see, you know, kind of what tempo or what meter someone is actually, you know, playing or emitting a certain sound.

(Soundbite of music)

MEYER: The Mobile Phone Orchestra, or MoPhO, is made up of anywhere between two and 20 people. They each use phones to shake, scroll and stipple their way to new tones and textures of sound. Through exploration of the smart phone's potential, they hope to answer a question.

Mr. WANG: You know, how can we provide new ways of thinking in terms of how people go about making music or playing music together, or performing music or composing?

MEYER: That's how orchestra member Jieun Oh feels about MoPhO. She played the flute in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra through her undergrad years. Although she still loves classical music, since joining MoPhO, Jieun is excited that their music has fewer physical limitations than a traditional orchestra. At first, she thought that mobile phones had a narrow musical vocabulary.

Ms. JIEUN OH (Member, Mobile Phone Orchestra, Stanford University): I thought things more in terms of kind of ringtones, but I realized it's not so passive like that.

MEYER: Since playing in MoPhO, Jieun has found that these palm-sized computers have expanded her appreciation of how she makes music.

Ms. OH: Computers can have the potential to generate, you know, any kind of sound that you can imagine.

MEYER: Not only does she find she can study music in new ways since she joined MoPhO, but she's having loads of fun.

Ms. OH: There's a piece called "Drone" that's been programmed for the iPhone, and if you gently shake the phone in a vertical direction, it makes this really rich and funny tambour, like boing sound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MEYER: Ge Wang pulls out his iPhone and tells me he and I are about to go world surfing. With a few taps on the multi-touch screen, he has connected with Ocarina players from all over the world.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WANG: This is someone calling themselves Zushi(ph) from Southeast Asia. So I'm actually hearing that on this kind of part - on the ocarina as part of the world listener feature of this app.

(Soundbite of music)

MEYER: So are you hearing them in real time?

Mr. WANG: This is - I would say it's semi-real time. This could be from just a few seconds ago or from maybe a few minutes or an hour ago.

MEYER: From this type of technology, Wang hopes to one day see live orchestras so large they will span entire regions, continents and beyond. So maybe one day, you'll be able to play a four-part harmony with someone thousands of miles away.

(Soundbite of song "Stairway to Heaven")

MEYER: For NPR News, I'm Megan Meyer.

LYDEN: You can watch a video of the smart phone ocarina in action at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song "Stairway to Heaven")

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