“Excuse me, can you put your phone away?”

Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble

At the Britton Recital Hall
Tonight, 8:00 p.m.
Free

This is something a student might hear during class from a perturbed teacher. But in some classroom, phones are no longer taboo.

As if iPhones and new mobile communication devices didn’t have enough uses already, these super-phones also double as musical instruments. Users can create melodies using various iPhone applications like the mini-piano and the ocarina. Sound is either created by blowing air into the phone’s microphone or by touching piano “keys” on the screen. Speakers worn on the students’ wrists amplify the beats and rhythms produced by the iPods.

This fresh and modern musical concept has been used to create a new inter-disciplinary class at the University. One of the results of this “Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble” course was the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble (or the MoPhos, as the group is affectionately called), which will be having an end-of-semester performance tonight at 8 p.m. in the Britton Recital Hall in the E.V. Moore Building.

Students majoring in a diverse array of subjects like electrical engineering and computer science, as well as students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, are involved in the ensemble.

“I’ve been working on turning mobile phones into musical instruments since 2005,” wrote Georg Essl, assistant professor and co-founder of MoPho, in an e-mail interview.

“In 2007, the topic had matured enough to actually start playing in ensembles, and the idea to start a mobile phone orchestra was born at Stanford. Given my interests, it was a natural thing to bring the idea to Michigan and incorporate the concept into a course.”

The class fuses both aspects of engineering and performance into its curriculum.

“Students learn both engineering skills — programming iPhones, dealing with sound synthesis and sensor-based inputs — as well as artistic concerns — how to write pieces, how to conduct, how to make the pieces work on stage,” Essl explained.

“The mixture of art and engineering is really refreshing,” Rackham graduate student Devin Kerr wrote in an e-mail interview.

“Usually if you take an art class, the engineering components get watered down or overlooked, and vice versa with an engineering class.”

By programming and composing their own original pieces for the show, MoPho students hold unique leadership positions while planning the performance.

“I wrote a piece for the various instruments we coded, which has a graphical score and I direct it,” Music, Theatre & Dance senior Matthew Steele explained in an e-mail.

“It consists of me conducting a ‘musical conversation.’ I put music in quotes because some people don’t consider a pulsating, skittering mass of grating noises to be music,” he said.

“I put conversation in quotes because the piece is a combination of the players having to listen to each other in order to create the types of textures I direct,” Steele said.

“Another student and I wrote a piece for around 12 iPhones that is meant to be played on a completely dark stage,” Kerr explained.

“Every phone plays a different role in the piece, playing different loops together, creating different visual color patterns that tightly correspond to the sounds being played.”

Having worked on Kerr’s and their own compositions throughout the semester, the students are excited about their new medium.

“Professor Essl really deserves kudos for taking the initiative with this class. As time goes on and he develops the class more and more, expect future performances to get better and better,” Music, Theatre & Dance senior Owen Campbell wrote.

The MoPho way of producing music is an innovative step for creativity on campus, and who knows, it may even revolutionize the music industry.

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