Shulamit Ran likes her ring tone.
"It's a harplike arpeggio going up and down," says the Chicago composer, who won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in music for her "Symphony." "It's very gentle. It's fun, and it's very delicate."
And the tone, which came with her latest phone, is a huge improvement, she says, on one that "came out of my phone" at a meeting years ago and caused her to turn "deep purple." That time, her son had programmed the embarrassing alert, which Ran, also on faculty at the University of Chicago, remembers only as being "some 'mojo' something."
Sub-30-second musical bursts emanating from cellphones are not a thing you would at first expect to discuss with someone who teaches and executes musical theory at the highest level.
And you'd probably be especially surprised to learn that Ran, in a new project, has written ring tones herself.
Ran's new ring tones, for a project led by the city's Spektral Quartet that was to debut at a performance Saturday night, are a perfect example of how the rise of smartphones — so ubiquitous that they are carried by 64-year-old classical composers and rap-loving grade schoolers alike — is making people approach their art form from new angles.
But so is the Art Institute of Chicago's tack, which will see the venerable museum introduce a new, media-rich app, Closer, on April 16. The current app, Tours, offers various guided tours (Birthday Suit, Femmes Fatales, The Two-Hour Tour, etc.) and maps.
Another fine example is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, currently developing an app that would allow people to call up surtitles — simultaneous translations of the lyrics — to go with the company's live radio broadcasts.
Indeed, across the city's arts and cultural organizations, there's a push to meet visitors where they live, which, for many of us, is in a space where our own brains meld with those of an iPhone or an Android device.
Many of these efforts are in their infant or toddler years. Most organizations are still executing such basic tasks as "optimizing" their websites for mobile devices, meaning they'll read as well on a hand-held gadget as on a desktop computer. But the attempts to leverage the immensely powerful devices that people now carry — and consult with almost neurotic frequency — are legion.
Largely gone are the old apprehensions, the old tensions that marked the relationship between smartphones and the arts. Where those running organizations once wondered what to do about these new devices that could record audio and video and take pictures — practices that had sometimes been barred — now they know: Embrace them.
Embrace them, that is to say, without turning their spaces into something that looks like a high school cafeteria, a collection of faces intent on glowing screens.
And embrace them, of course, while still beginning theatrical performances with a reminder to turn the darn things off, because in such a setting they can be even more annoying than the unwrapping of a cough drop.
"We allow phones in the theater, but we really don't allow people to use any kinds of digital devices," says Lori Kleinerman, Goodman Theatre's director of marketing. "It's the right decision for our patrons and the artists. Theater is transportive."
Ditto for live classical music. Stand-up comics, too, these days routinely begin shows with a funny but very serious request that audiences not record, not text, not snap pictures.
"If you're sitting there flashing a thing in my face, that's gonna distract me," comic Aziz Ansari said in a 2012 Pitchfork interview, explaining his aversion to cellphones.
But for most other organizations, most other settings, the phones are being welcomed.
"Hundreds of people in the course of the day taking a picture of 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,' we believe that raises the desire for the real thing," says Erin Hogan, the Art Institute's head of interpretation. "We think it's a positive thing that the phones allow these images to enter the visual mainstream."
Like the Art Institute, the Field Museum offers an app that highlights the collections and helps guide tours, also called Tours. The Field had already moved away from the traditional headset and tape recorder.
"The idea of putting more control in the hands of our visitors is what we're looking at these days," says Meg Keslosky, the Field's director of communications.
The Field Museum app debuted in the fall along with its current show on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Since then, the museum has added to the app a highlights tour and, just recently, a tour geared toward families with 5- to 8-year-old children.
"We want to focus a lot of effort in the future on letting our visitors curate their own tours," Keslosky says. "We don't want this to be just the Field Museum telling you what you need to do."
Susan Chun, the newly hired chief content officer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is bursting with ideas for how that institution can develop a still-nascent partnership with the technology that visitors carry.
Part of the thinking involves using tech to help make galleries noisier, less "forbidding" places, she says.
"We would like very much to find a way to use mobile as a way of interacting with the audience," says Chun, most recently senior editor for new media and collections general manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We want mobile to be an extension of the gallery visit."
But there's a danger in becoming too enamored of technology, she cautions, saying that you don't want time and energy spent developing a mobile app to take away from such basics as training staff.
Zoos and science museums are trying to linger with people after the visit by offering apps that expand on the knowledge or the mission.
Lincoln Park Zoo, for instance, offers the Observe to Learn app, guiding users through self-directed backyard behavioral animal studies; Creating Young Researchers, an iPad app that's more about identifying and counting species in a local ecosystem; and "Chimps Should Be Chimps," a children's book for iPad educating kids about chimpanzees.
That said, the zoo is careful to try to keep the at-the-zoo experience more personal, one that takes place without technological intermediary between person and animal, spokeswoman Sharon Dewar says.
Music venues have developed their own mores. Rock clubs these days, of course, are filled with fans who seem more devoted to snapping smartphone images or shooting smartphone video than actually watching the band. In big concerts, like at the recent Miley Cyrus show, the phones' bright screens play the role that cigarette lighters used to: tokens of tribute held aloft.
This can sometimes be distracting to other patrons, who end up having to choose whether to watch the show on the stage or on the video screen being held up right in front of them.
But the philosophy at the North Side club Schubas is largely live and let live, as few people abuse the privilege, says general manager Mike Berent, and when they do it's more because of overenthusiasm than obnoxiousness.
"A lot of artists, especially the ones that skew younger, kind of embrace it as almost a fact of life," Berent says, noting that tweets and photos and the like can serve as extra PR for up-and-coming groups.
Still, though, he does find himself wondering, he says, "how many of these (videos) actually get watched."
And then there is the exceptional case of Ran and her first foray into composition for the portable communications handset.
She and several dozen fellow writers accepted the challenge — and very modest $100 commission, raised, of course, via Kickstarter — of Chicago's Spektral Quartet to craft original ring tones, text alerts or alarms for a string chamber group.
The results, dubbed Mobile Miniatures: The Ringtone Project, were to premiere at a party and live performance Saturday night at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. They are available to members of the public who want something more interesting, and more classy, than "Beep-beep," "Popcorn tone" or "VZW Airwaves," to cite what's available on one Verizon phone.
"We were just thinking of ways to engage a large swath of collaborators and looking for projects that might have interesting intercepts with technology," says Russell Rolen, Spektral Quartet's cellist and executive director. "Then one morning it kind of hit me in the shower: It's a ubiquitous music delivery device. Even the less-smart phones. All of them have the capability of playing music.
"This kind of music and these composers so often are relegated, really, to just the concert hall experience. Trying to attract a general audience is tough. So we are hoping that this provides an entry point for people to come in contact with the music."
Rolen wasn't sure how the idea would fly with composers.
"We worried that … people would find it to be trivial or something," he says. But almost 50 writers accepted and only two turned Spektral down.
"People were pretty much right on board," says Rolen. "They saw it as an interesting opportunity to engage with the marriage of two mediums."
Ran ran with it. Instead of just one piece, she ended up writing 13, including one that has the quartet members saying things like, "Hey, someone's calling you" and "Someone pick up."
"Anytime I get something that is really unusual, I see a small Mount Everest in front of my eyes," she says. "For this intriguing little challenge I ended up writing a bunch because I was having such fun with it."
She gave them titles, too, like ones you might find for tones already on a phone: "Bells in the Air," "Tick Tock," "Greener Pastures," "Quicksilver" and, in a Stravinsky allusion, "Rite of Ring."
"They all have a kind of built-in redundancy," she says, and an interruptability, qualities she thinks the form demands.
Asked if she'll make one of them her own ring tone, replacing the factory-issue, harplike tone she is using, she demurs, saying that it might be a bit much to use one's own composition as a ring tone.
Besides, she adds, there's a technical hurdle.
"I'd have to figure out how to load it. I'm very low-tech."
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