Western Electric

Installation for computer-controlled dial phones (2012-15)

Design, Coding & Fabrication: MO

Custom electronics: James Lo

Robotics Consulting: Leif Krinkle

Phone Booth(New Orleans): Nina Nichols


  • Clocktower Gallery, New York, 2013 (No. 1)
  • City Park Roving Village, New Orleans, 2015 (No. 2)
  • IDIO Gallery, Brooklyn, 2016 (No. 1)

Western Electric is a generative composition for an array of computer-controlled telephones.

The telephones are linked to a computer controlling the sonic output of the bells. Old telephones sound via mechanical rather than electronic means: their bells are struck by clappers. In this work, the telephones have been modified so that the speed and position of the clappers can be voltage-controlled, making possible a wide range of rhythms, sounds and tones - from single peals to muted taps to familiar rings.

This expanded sound palette is used as the material for a compositional structure based on several different algorithms, most of which are designed to model swarm behaviors of relatively simple organisms such as crickets or fireflies. Each telephone is 'aware' of what its neighbors are doing sonically, and determines its actions based on a Markov-type decision chain which weights its possible activities such as type of sound, frequency, and intensity based on the activities of its neighbors.

In 2015, I was commissioned by New Orleans Airlift to develop an interactive version of the work for their Roving Musical Village, presented in City Park, New Orleans, in 2015. This version had an array of phones located throughout the village, controlled by a payphone located at the village’s center, which also served as the villages PA system. A video of the Roving Musical Village can be found here.

Modifying telephones in New Orleans
clocktower Gallery, New york
payphone booth -- New orleans