Helsinki Mobile Phone Orchestra - Helsinki MoPhO

An interview with Henri Penttinen, the founder of Helsinki Mobile Phone Orchestra (adapted from interviews in Finnish)


What is the point of the orchestra?

To use mobile phones as musical instruments. Helsinki Mobile Phone Orchestra wants to break patterns in music creation and listening. And have fun while doing so! :)

There's nothing quite like being surrounded by eight sounding mobile phones.

How does is it work?

The sounds are created on the computer inside the phone and controlled by the player. In essence, the keys, the position, the movement and the touch screen are used to control synthetic sounds. So, we utilize anything but traditional ringing tones. The phone is used like a synthesizer and controlled by any means the phone gives us and we come up with. The movement, for example, is tracked by a built-in accelerometer just like a Nintendo Wii-controller. The position can then be used the control the pitch or timbre of the sound.

Is it difficult to play? Who can play a mobile phone?

One element of design has been the ease of playability of the instrument. Most of the mobile instruments are easy to play. However, this is a learning process and we are also studying how to build usable interfaces. One key element of the development and growth of the orchestra is the research done at Aalto University at the Department of Signal Processing and Acoustics.

There is research involved in this?

Yes, scientific research is also involved in the synthesis and interface-related issues. It's not only art and games. We at Aalto University at the Department of Signal Processing and Acoustics have collaborated with other European Universities (see the SAME project) on how the sound generated by the computer can be controlled via a mobile phone. Also, Nokia has supported us greatly with phones and moral support.

What phones do you use?

We've been using Nokia smartphones N95's, N97's, N900's, and occasionally iPod Touches.

So you're not brand restricted?

Otherwise maybe, but not in this sense, no.

How do you create the sounds?

The sounds are created with synthesizers that we have programmed on to the phones. We use classic methods like the FM-synthesis, some modern physical modeling techniques for the guitar, and some samples. Anything that will sound interesting is good for us. Jari Kleimola (Aalto University) has been an avid developer and programmer in the project.

What kind of music do you play?

The music ranges from beautiful traditional sounds to more experimental material that one cannot produce with traditional instruments. We're not trying to recreate the violin or electric guitar, per say. In some pieces we move around the audience and create 3D soundscapes. This depends a lot on the song too. We collaborate with some modern music composers, such as the legendary Finnish electromusic composer Otto Romanowski, and the American composer Jonathan Middleton. The players have also composed pieces. We do some special cover songs too.

What kind of reactions do you get from the audience?

Most people are positively surprised. The reception varies from bafflement to something positive. Most of the audience, so far, have not thought of the mobile phone as a musical instrument or know what kind of music to expect. All in all, there's nothing quite like being surrounded by eight sounding mobile phones.

How did it all get started?

I was a visiting scholar at Stanford University in late 2007 / early 2008 and brought the idea there. I collaborated with associate professors Ge Wang (Stanford) and Georg Essl (now at University of Michigan). We established the first mobile phone orchestra and had our first concert in January 2008 at Stanford. When returning to Finland we formed the Helsinki Mobile Phone Orchestra.

What about the future?

Create better instruments. In a few years have the possibility for anyone to play together anywhere. The social aspect is an interesting path to be developed further. Social networking is another dimension that will open up new doors for us all.

Any last comments?

Hi Mom!