It’s happened to all of us. We’re enjoying a concert, but the person in front of us raises their phone to take a photo or video and blocks our view. Or, even worse, they’re texting or surfing the web during the performance.
Some musicians have banned phones from their concerts, or required audience members to lock them up in little boxes that won’t open until the show is over. But rather than fight this 21st-century frustration, Lancaster’s NakedEye Ensemble is embracing the technology by including it in its show.
“Toy,” the latest album from the experimental music group, explores what toy instruments can do in five pieces, all written by living composers. One selection, “Babbling Tower to Tower” by Lancaster composer Rusty Banks, uses cellphones as a distortion tool.
NakedEye Ensemble will perform that piece and more at a concert Thursday at Tellus360 celebrating the release of “Toy.” The group will have copies of the album available for sale.
The ensemble began around 2012, when classical pianist Ju-Ping Song became enthralled with Bang on a Can, a group of musicians in New York City infusing classical music with electric instruments. Song became inspired to blur the lines between classical and mainstream pop or rock. After connecting with Lancaster guitarist Chad Kinsey, she began to create her own boundary-pushing group.
NakedEye Ensemble thrives on musical exploration and innovation. Classically trained musicians and artists with pop, rock and jazz experience join forces to present modern compositions that often defy proper description.
Around the time of NakedEye Ensemble’s formation, Song became interested in John Cage’s work on toy pianos. She’s since made the pint-sized jangly instrument part of her own arsenal of sounds.
“Anything that kind of gets me out of my comfort zone, that kind of piques my curiosity, is always good for me,” Song says.
“Toy” is NakedEye Ensemble’s second album. While the ensemble has performed concerts featuring toy instruments before, “Toy” marks its first studio effort entirely dedicated to works including toy instruments. Song says the record’s creation was accidental in nature, not unlike her winding journey with the toy piano.
As the musicians began to gather pieces they felt they knew well-enough to record, independent New York City record label New Focus Recordings showed interest in the project. Naked Eye Ensemble then completed the project within two months.
“I wish we could say we had planned it, but I think it’s more of an accidental thing or an accidental journey,” Song says. “It’s very colorful. It’s very unexpected.”
One of those unexpected elements is the aforementioned cellphone use. In the live performance of “Babbling Tower to Tower,” the NakedEye Ensemble will use cellphones to call one another on stage, transmitting the sound from their instruments to speakers attached to the cellphones. The more calls that the musicians make, the fuzzier the sound gets.
“Each time it bounces around, it gets a little bit more distorted,” Song says. “It gets a little bit less stable.”
The technique took a fair amount of experimentation of different calling methods, from traditional calling to apps using Wi-Fi.
“We found that Wi-Fi calling was too good,” Song says. “It was too clear and too immediate. There’s almost no lag. It almost defeated the purpose. There was no delay.”
While the cellphones and toy instruments are an interesting conversation piece, Song stresses that they’re more than just that. Pay attention to the music, and you’ll hear that these little instruments have earned their place among their full-size counterparts.
“They could be gimmicky, but they work,” Song says. “Somehow, (because of) the added value, it makes sense to have them there. They’re not there just for show. All these little instruments have a reason to be there.”