Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Quartetus Interruptus (The "Nokia Quartet") for woodwind trio and mobile phone

Telephones are considerably more mobile they were in the Good Old Days... nowadays they have mutated into Machiavellian Devices specifically designed for interrupting classical concerts at crucial moments. Therefore I felt impelled to write a Woodwind Quartet (oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon) to immortalize the insistent penetration of the Nokia Corporation into the musical fabric of Western Culture. There is nothing especially novel or innovative about this - many mediaeval motets of the 13th century, too, had street-vendor jingles of the day woven into their fabric.

Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, and click the orange PLAY button...

Alternatively, you could listen to the music at its URL:
If you wish, you can read the score (in pdf format) here.
A transposed performance score is available here.
Each of these links will open in its own window so you can scroll thru while listening to the music. Both score and mp3 recording are free and downloadable.

Did u know that Nokia's irritating little tune was surgically extracted from a classical guitar solo by Francisco Tárrega (his "Gran Vals"). You can hear it here on Youtube... it will open in a new window. Thanks for nothing, Frank.

As Howard Dietz once quipped, "Composers shouldn't think too much - it interferes with their plagiarism".  My Quartet is probably (as with most "original" compositions) a subconcious re-editing of various pieces I've enjoyed but "forgotten", a sort of musical potage-compilation. It's deliberately "pretty" - and there's a good reason for that. I wanted it to sound like a prim and proper little mainstrean chamber piece, the accessible melodic sort which might be preferred by normal "music lovers".  Therein lies its vulnerability, its ultimate doom... as the audience relaxes and drifts along with the music, Unthinkable Horror can happen... even at a concert-hall NEAR YOU.

I had gleefully noticed that Tárrega's little telephonic ditty roughly compatible with the conventional ii-V-I  harmonic cadence formula:
That's why Quartetus Interruptus features innocent short phrases which frequently incorporate such ii-V-I sequences (circling through a variety of keys). This gave me the opportunity to surgically implant or rather, superimpose the Nokia tune over a number of my own phrases.
Quartetus Interruptus could actually work viably just as a trio of oboe, clarinet and bassoon. In terms of conventional part-writing, it doesn't really need to be a quartet. BUT (un-beknown to the poor innocent audience) the spare fourth performer is a desperate Terrorist clutching a mobile phone which has been cleverly modified to appear like another clarinet, silently waiting to ambush the ensemble when s/he detects a suitable.moment. The devastating Nokia tune can then be cruelly detonated to inflict maximum casualties. The unfortunate fact that the audience is usually seated closer to the mobile phone than to the musicians means that the penetrating Nokia ringtone can sound relatively louder than the music itself. With this in mind, it would be okay/fun/alarming for the second clarinet to be placed next to, or for novelty's sake, even among, the audience ;-)
Surely this telephonic intrusion comprises nothing less than Musical Terrorism on a mind-numbingly pervasive international scale! The Mobile has mutated into Phonezilla, a deadly "Weapon of Muse Distraction" ...and Dubm Dubya never even recognized it for the threat it is (coz he's probably never been to a concert :-) Surely everyone else on the planet has by now been the helpless victim of a laser-guided Nokia sound-bomb.

This next photo represents how I feel when seated in a concert in the brutal aftermath of such a bunker-busting attack, musically stunned, limping through the decimated remains of the beautiful musical landscape-that-was... 
  Listen out for the renegade bassoonist who, in a moment of weakness? insanity? corruption? .briefly becomes a willing accomplice to the Nokia suicide bomber, before regaining his senses. The bassoon, always the buffoon of the orchestra, of course gets the Nokia tune slightly "wrong". At one point, the music is hijacked and fooled into changing key by a rudely insistent mobile. Thus, the entire piece is gradually colonized by this lightweight jingle. Prepare Ye Thine Ears for a few brief moments of utter telephonic chaos when all the mobiles in the audience begin ringing together - the music goes completely "out of focus" during a poly-rhythmic rhythmic canon. It sounds chaotic ...but, ironically it is arguably the most structured passage of the entire piece (and - perversely - it's the bit I like best, of course... :-)
Also beware the very end - there's an unexpected but subtle visitation by the Nokia startup tune, then an unexpected Nokia grenade hurled by a disaffected concert patron, followed by the musical equivalent of a staredown: the loudest silence you'll ever hear. Eventually though, Moral Fortitude triumphs...

Speaking of Moral Fortitude, I suggest that before anyone is permitted to enter a concert venue, they should be frisked or x-rayed and any mobiles temporarily impounded. Offenders whose phone interrupts the concert should be required to stand onstage for the remainder of the performance, then be frog-marched off by the Music Police to a sound-proof padded cell and forced to listen to my "Nokia Quartet" looped 12 hours (a.k.a. "music-boarding"). As a newly-converted Music Jihadist, I'm considering applying to perform with this ensemble on YouTube.
Although Quartetus Interruptus is clearly a "novelty piece", I think it still hangs together in its own right in a fairly integrated way. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped, this music is better than it sounds. Your beloved Nokia tune appears right at the outset although you might not immediately recognize it embedded in quartal/secondal harmony. Its rhythm is distorted and the normal pattern of accents displaced, creating the world's first Waltz in 4 beats to the bar. Plus there are also a couple of extra passing notes snuk in to throw you off the scent... marked with x 
Tarrega's Granvals is a waltz, so (naturally :-) I wrote my own piece in duple time in order to generate rhythmic conflict-of-interest: the triplets of the Nokia tune are pitted against the twos and fours of mine. Likewise, the Nokia ring tone is quite disjunct (the notes mostly leap around by wide intervals), therefore I made my piece smooth and melodically conjunct. That makes the jagged mountain peaks of the Nokia ringtone leap out dramatically against the languidly rolling countryside of my own music. Lastly, the piece also addresses one of my favourite quests, a seamless interface between Tertian and Quartal harmonic systems (particularly in the Intro and Outro).

Out of respect for the Muses and sensitive concert-goers' ears, I'm thinking of re-marketing various vintage "less-than-mobile" phones in order to discourage saboteurs from sneaking them into concerts:

Retro mobile phones


  1. Evidence has emerged that Mozart owned a mobile. That's where he got the theme to the opening bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Ain't musicology wonderful?

  2. You MUST edit that decadent capitalist tune out of the music immediately, or we will cut off your ears.
    The TallyBand.