David Lister: The Week in Arts

Ringtones really can be music to our ears
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The Independent Online

"Ladies and Gentlemen," said the conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta to the audience this week, "please turn on your cellphones." That alone must have been worth the admission money: the arts at their subversive best. Who would have expected it of a classical music band? But then this was a very subversive piece of classical music. It was the world premiere of the Concertino for Cellular Phones and Symphony Orchestra.

The piece, composed by 74-year-old David N Baker, a professor of music at Indiana University, even had audience involvement with a traffic light device signalling green for the stalls to activate their rings and red for the balcony. On stage were four amplified mobile phones. One was programmed with the main tune and classical themes such as William Tell and a motif from Brahms' fourth symphony. The other three "cellphonists" on stage played random rings.

I rather like that new instrument. What 11-year-old wouldn't rather give up piano lessons and practise cellphony?

The New York Times described the Chicago experience as "like an aviary gone mad". Its critic noted that many in the audience were " rehearsing" before the concert, "staring intently at their phones, cocking their heads and punching buttons". During the performance, little squares of light from the audience's cellphone screens illuminated the hall. It must have been the nearest a classical concert has come to resembling a Pink Floyd gig.

As is standard with any faintly humorous cultural innovation, those involved added pomposity to the proceedings with bureaucratic artspeak. Jim Hirsch, the orchestra's executive director, said: "The key is to differentiate ourselves in the market in general." The work's composer, Mr Baker, claimed a sophisticated artistic purpose for the enterprise: "What I was really thinking was chaos vs organisation," he said. "But more importantly, how do you change somebody's listening apparatus by what's going on around them?" The audience participation was, he added, a way of giving people control at a concert.

That all sounds a bit like killing a good joke stone dead to me. So I'll ignore it. The cellphone symphony was a good joke, and in its small way one of the more significant events in the arts this year.

Fear of mobile phones is ever present at cultural events. No film, play, concert, opera or ballet seems to start without a warning to turn them off. Numerous arts writers have, for what seems like years, got easy columns out of their annoyance with thoughtless audience members leaving theirs switched on. The star of The History Boys, Richard Griffiths, has developed a second career as the man who halts plays by lecturing offenders from the stage.

I have either been attending the wrong shows or suffering from impending deafness when I say that in my experience it hardly ever happens that a mobile phone goes off mid-performance, and the amount of fuss is wildly disproportionate to the number of offences.

The cellphone concertino isn't best remembered as an ironic commentary, or a niche marketing strategy by an orchestra to differentiate itself in the classical music marketplace, nor even an exercise in chaos vs organisation and a challenge to an audience to take a different look at its listening apparatus.

It's something much more unusual in the arts: a rather imaginative bit of fun. And it's that which makes it a rarity, and one of the more significant cultural events of the year.

A hotbed of early talent

The National Youth Theatre this week released pictures of early performances by some of its most famous alumni, including Helen Mirren as Cleopatra in 1965. Mirren was in a glittering array of talent at the NYT in the mid-1960s, which also included Diana Quick, Timothy Dalton, and future journalists Polly Toynbee and Kate Adie. Adie worked in the wardrobe department and went out with Dalton. Toynbee was then a wannabe actress, but one of her biggest roles was merely in a crowd scene in Julius Caesar.

I gather that Mirren nearly capped her sparkling start in theatre with a debut in one of the best-known British films. She auditioned to play opposite Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson's If.... McDowell tells how he was enthralled by the young actress and recommended her strongly to Anderson, who refused to cast her. "Why not? What's wrong with her?" McDowell demanded. Anderson looked in Helen Mirren's direction and snorted: "Bourgeois!"

* The Turner Prize was set up to encourage the public to engage with contemporary art. Last weekend, the journalist Lynn Barber wrote a piece in The Observer about her time as a judge for this year's prize. She said that she had to ask to see the public nominations of artists deemed prizeworthy. She was then given a bald list of names just a fortnight before the shortlist had to be drawn up. Any shows by those nominees were long gone. Ms Barber noted that it was wrong of the Tate to suggest that the public's views would be taken into account when they are clearly not.

Actually, it is worse than wrong; it is the art establishment being contemptuous of its public. It is something the Tate's funders and the prize's sponsors should look into urgently, as indeed should the Tate director, and chairman of the Turner Prize judges, Sir Nicholas Serota.