As far as musicians and the concert-going public are concerned mobile phones and digital watches are unwelcome, obtrusive and have had a rather bad press in recent times. I would like to point to occasions when their presence can provide something more positive.
Last year I was involved in making the sound installations for a project in the Valencia Architecture Biennale for a kind of Department Store, devised by Will Alsop and Bruce McLean. While this involved producing background music (another kind of ‘unwanted sound’) for various sections of the “store”I also gave two concerts there. These took place in the austere and very beautiful old refectory space of a disused convent, a space with a wonderfully reverberative acoustic ( in which I had recorded some of the material for the ambient music used elsewhere). This concert consisted entirely of pieces of mine for early music singers and which had some resonance with the mediaeval character of the space. During the opening unaccompanied Lauda for solo soprano Anna Maria Friman my mobile phone began to ring inside my briefcase, which was nearby at the side of the stage. I had a choice. I could either open the bag to switch it off thereby making the phone sound louder (I discounted the option of answering the phone) or let it ring in its muffled state allowing it to stop of its own accord. During that brief moment I quickly realised that I had, after all, composed the (admittedly dreadful) ringtone on the mobile myself and as such was providing a form of obligato accompaniment which could not fail to be stylistically coherent…..
Before the era of the mobile phone, digital watches were the bête noir of the concert performer. In 1986 Simon Holt and I were the guest composers for a concert series in Japan. Each of us was asked to curate and, in my case, conduct a concert of our own music and that of colleagues and friends. These concerts took place in a large hall in Yokohama in the afternoons with a capacity audience of about 1000 people present. One of the works in the middle of Simon’s concert was a very elegant piece for solo guitar by Nigel Osborne. As the guitarist plucked the subtle and perfectly tuned harmonics, allowing them to resonate in the darkness of the vast and silent auditorium, there was a flurry of almost identical quiet pings rebounding from the hall itself as, over a period of about 20 seconds, like stars suddenly and randomly appearing in the night sky, 1000 digital watches indicated that it was three o’clock. The volume level of those pings, however, was exactly that of the on-stage solo guitar, and it was as if the music had been miraculously and mysteriously projected into space and had a transcendent beauty that I have rarely seen equalled.