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Macmillan ringtone

What would Teddie Say? by Wieland Hoban

Encountering this advertisement, I immediately wondered what Theodor W. Adorno (known to friends and family as 'Teddie') would have thought. Though read less in Britain than in Germany, Adorno is known for the breadth of his writings, covering musical analysis, sociology, philosophy and literary criticism; what he is probably known best for is his sustained endeavour to show the socio-political content of aesthetic matters. At the time that he was writing on the 'culture industry', most notably in the Dialectic Of Enlightenment, co-authored with Max Horkheimer and published in 1947, it was jazz and dance-music that struck him as crassly populist, even barbaric.

Considering how far popular culture has developed since the 1940s, many of the objects of Adorno's criticism seem harmless, even quaint now. One can only speculate on how he would have responded to the galactic rise of advertising, the film industry or the popular record market; if 1940s culture seemed barbaric to him, then those phenomena which had just begun to intensify at the time of his death in 1969 would, in the heightened form they had already reached a decade or less later, surely have made him suspect that Armageddon had arrived.

So where does James MacMillan come into this? One's first impression is surely one of bemusement: a contemporary music figure appearing on the display of a Panasonic mobile phone? High culture in connection with that symbol of today's commodified communication, of personal encounters reduced to the length of a text message? As transpires from reading further, what is on offer is not a screen-sized pin-up of the composer, but rather a ringtone reproducing his music. Occasional music, one might even say, as the offer is conceived to tie in with an event, namely a festival of his music. Naturally the work on offer is a 'classic', a piece first performed at the Proms with Evelyn Glennie and subsequently recorded on CD; anything less bombastic than a percussion concerto would no doubt have seemed inappropriate for such an act of cultural exhibitionism. The ringtone is available from the start of the festival until two weeks after it finishes; in other words, the life of this ringtone is more or less limited to the effect-sphere of the festival. Two days before the concert it can act as a harbinger, two weeks afterwards as a final reminiscence of a moving experience. This conjures up images of bustling restaurants filled with the sound of MacMillan, a veritable convention of supposedly trendy art-gourmets in which excerpts of distorted, canned contemporary classical music are displayed in the manner of plumage shown by mating birds to attract their kind. Like any event, however, and especially those of the culture industry, the joy is inevitably short-lived. I can barely imagine hearing the ringtones much longer once the festival has ended and media coverage has ceased; after all, nothing is older than yesterday's news.

There is hope for the devotees, however: reading on in the advertisement, one finds that MacMillan's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, has entered a partnership to produce more such soundbites. The ringtone is 'compatible with most mobile phones'; nonetheless, Boosey & Hawkes chose to depict a device advertising two further companies, namely Panasonic and Vodaphone, so it is conceivable that further deals will be struck. Perhaps then all those who complain of the noise pollution created by the endless beeping of mobile phones in public places will rejoice at finally hearing the sound of true culture. Or perhaps not.

Should it ever become possible to acquire Adorno ringtones, I shall be the first to load one onto my own mobile phone. In the original German, of course – how much more musical language is when it is not understood! And best of all read by Adorno himself, for that added touch of canned personality. Perhaps I shall opt for a statement from his Aesthetic Theory: 'The scars of disintegration are modernity's seal of authenticity'. I somehow doubt that this will be a popular choice among MacMillan fans...

See also LSO ring-tones (Rite of Spring etc) What do you think about this pollution of the public environment?

Wieland Hoban was a featured composer in Ian Pace's recent recital at The Warehouse, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

© Peter Grahame Woolf