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Music from global cellphones

Is it weird, sad or rad so many new musicians make tracks from longing message beeps?

Associate editor of and freelance writer Ruth Saxelby discusses the direction new music every month under the title Notes For Tomorrow.

“Where’s my phone?” These words pass my lips at least once a day, usually muttered to myself and often when my phone is in my immediate surroundings: at the bottom of my bag, in my pocket or on the table in front of me. It’s become somewhat of an anxiety-ridden ritual: that familiar little heart-hiccup when my fingers are frantically scrabbling in my bag followed by the swoosh of relief when they finally fall on that smooth, hard screen. Maybe it’s why I’ve taken to walking around with my phone in my hand, fingers protectively clenched around it. It was in such a pose that I found myself walking to the dentist a couple of weeks ago. I glanced down at my claw-hand and, in the unforgiving first sunlight of spring, the smeared screen of my phone leered back at me. It was disgusting: all clammy with sweat and skin oil. The 21st century’s luxury must-have lump of tech revealed its sticky reality: a touch screen is born to be coated in human slime.

This messy meeting of human and technology made me think about an in-betweenness I feel most of the time. When I’ve spent all day online I fantasize about an off-grid, unplugged, self-sufficient life in a cottage with a garden full of home-grown vegetable, yet when I’m visiting my parents who do grow their own vegetables I’m constantly popping into the garden for a moment of privacy to check my email and my Twitter. I swear it’s why I kept on smoking for so long: it was an excuse to steal away with my phone for a few moments online, safe from the disapproving “that’s not very sociable” look from loved ones.

This tension between IRL and URL life is something I call digital reality. Digital reality is the limbo land between the physical world and the online realm - and both its servant and master is the phone: the physical key to this hyper-contemporary state. Perhaps if I’m caught, gif-like, in the push-pull clutches of digital reality, others might be too. If that is the case, how might that sense be seeping into music today and how might it shape music in the near-future?

The role that the phone has played in music has been for so long to represent absence. Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” with its drunk dialed intro is perhaps the greatest/saddest example of the phone being used to signify a sense a disconnection, not least because nobody uses their phone to make calls anymore, Drake. Unless they’re bladdered. 

With the phone no longer about calls, pop music tells a story of its shift from signifying absence to validating presence. Recognising this changing role, Beyonce got in there quick with “Video Phone” in 2008. “You saying that you want me / Press record, I’ll let you film me ... If you want me you can watch me on your video phone.” The ultimate act of presence today, though, is switching your phone off.

Kingdom recently tweeted that “bedroom rnb songs all say “turn your phone off”now, guess its that instagramming in bed epidemic”. He was more than likely referencing Ciara’s “Body Party” with its lyric: “Baby put your phone down, you should turn it off / Cause tonight is going down”. Ciara’s insistence that her lover turn his phone off is foreplay talk for the ultimate act of presence.

One of Kingdom’s followers tweeted a link at him in response that claimed that 10% of people under 25 “wouldn’t mind being interrupted with an electronic message during sex.” It was based on a pretty small sample but still: it’s food for thought. Maybe in this new digital reality we don’t mind being interrupted by electronic messages because we have begun to associate these text tones and social media sounds with a signal of attention and affection.

Along my digital reality trail, I stumbled across the most perfectly titled blog post: Pavlov’s Cell Phone. A blogger named Jennifer describes her addiction to her phone: “Let’s talk about all the sounds it makes shall we? There is a tweet, a swoosh, a ping, a melodic ripple, an old phone, and my favorite…when the sound is turned off, it vibrates in the rhythm of a heartbeat to let me know I should once again look at my phone.”

For Jennifer, these text-based communication sounds are imbued with emotion and, Pavlov style, act as a reward. She’s not the only one. In digital reality, the dawn chorus is one of texts, emails, Skype bubbles, Facebook chat tones and, of course, tweets. When I’m tied to my laptop on a deadline, the bubble sound of a Skype message is a sweet distraction: a flattering flicker of attention. From Skype tones to vibrating phones, the hum and buzz of digital reality is seeping into contemporary music.

Pay close attention to “I Am Sold”, the loneliest, loveliest song on James Blake’s new album Overgrown, and you will notice a Skype bubble type sound buried in the bass swells from around the 1.20 minute mark. With Blake recently discussing his long-distance relationship in interview, it’s tempting to tie up the narrative loose ends: whether Blake consciously incorporated that sound or not, the Skype bubble is central to the digital reality of modern relationships.

Then there’s Laurel Halo’s “Sex Mission” from her Behind The Green Door EP out on Hyperdub this month. From around the 4-minute mark there’s a tone that sounds remarkably like that of a vibrating phone. I recently asked Halo about this tone and she said it wasn’t intentional. Again, though, there’s a link to be made with the song’s titular subject and the vibrating phone’s signal of desire. Maybe it was subconscious or maybe I as listener am so highly sensitive to these tones that I’m reading them into songs.

Someone for whom this weaving in of communication tones was entirely intentional is Jersey club producer DJ Sliink. He recently explained that his track “Vibrate” came about when his BlackBerry went off during a studio session. He liked the vibrating sound and built his tough club anthem around it. To a subtler extent, d’Eon has often experimented with cell phone interference, most notably on the wonderfully named “Telepathy”. How many people reach for their phone when either of these play, I wonder?

Perhaps the increasing presence of these phone tones and social media sounds in electronic music production is the 21st century equivalent of vinyl’s cracks and pops. After all, if you’re listening to music on a laptop or a phone, these digital reality tones often provide an environmental backdrop. Or maybe, as James Ferraro presciently indicated with his 2011 masterpiece Far Side Virtual, it’s simply because this is what the 21st century sounds like to consumer culture ears. At once banal and sinister, Far Side Virtual is awash with computer start-up sounds, text bubbles and, brilliantly, a swift fade at the end of “Condo Pets” that apes the effect when a phone call interrupts music play on an iPhone. “The role of these sounds emphasize the ambiguity of society,” Ferraro told me in an interview for Dazed back in 2011. As social behaviour becomes increasingly mobile and online (cue any number of news reports and articles), it only seems natural that the blur of digital reality will continue to infiltrate the soundtrack of tomorrow.

This column was first presented as a talk at the Politics of Contemporary Music event at the University of Warwick.

Main image: James Ferraro, Far Side Virtual (album artwork)