Telephone with a Twist

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“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” – Winston Churchill

In which I scrap the stacks of unfinished blog posts piling up on my electronic device and do something different.

Most of us have played “telephone”: that elementary school game where you’re supposed to correctly transmit a goofy phrase of some sort down a line of line of giggling third-grader peers who think the goal of the game is to incorrectly transmit the phrase. I always loved the game telephone, so I devised a way to kick it up a notch and blend it with two of my favorite things: cinematic symphonic music and Lego.

Back in June at a Lego convention in Chicago that I was displaying at, I gathered a group of seven of the best and brightest minds in the Lego artist community to pitch an idea for an interpretive experiment that came to be known as the “Symphony of Construction.” In our group we had two of my good friends, Max and Ian, who in addition to being Lego geeks like myself, are talented composers. Christopher Baldacci, another fantastic composer joined our ranks soon after. We had Sean and Steph Mayo, the husband and wife team from Maryland who have a knack for using Lego parts in unconventional ways and also have a knack for building entirely Lego functional flamethrowers, working terrariums, and Lego sushi rolls the size of your dining room table. We had in our group the indispensable Simon Liu, a dashing Canadian with an affinity for sci-fi and big spaceships. And we had in our group the famed Tyler Clites from Florida, a freelance Lego artist, film student, and master of clean construction and expressive characters. Between the eight of us, we had quite the powerhouse of talent.

The idea was a seven turn inter-media game of telephone where a Lego creation would inspire a piece of music, which in turn would inspire a Lego creation, which would then inspire another piece of music, and so on. The project lasted four months, and you can view the finished progression, complete with artist commentary below.


1. “Floodwaters” by Paul Vermeesch



“In this beginning build, I wanted to leave a bit of ambiguity in the scene for Max to interpret. The diorama leaves several questions unanswered: Was the event anticipated? What time period is this? Where is this happening? Where are the signs of life? Max Pointner, in his brilliant piece “Skeleton,” continues this sense of ambiguity.”


2. “Skeleton” by Max Pointner

“When I saw Paul’s build “Floodwaters,” I saw immediately the theme of transformation: change from dilapidated to pure. I tried to emulate this in Skeleton by introducing the first motif with solo viola. It is far from pleasant sounding, as the progression sinks lower and lower, through tritones and accidentals. After this introduction, the full string section opens to harmonize with bells and celesta playing the second “purifying” theme.

When the first motif is re-introduced, I tried to make it as piercing and frenetic as possible with tremolo woodwinds, bells, bongos and col legno strings. At the hight of this madness, a wave can be heard “washing away” the chaos. I have wanted to experiment with sound effects in music for some time now, and this was the perfect opportunity. The purifying theme is heard over the lapping floodwaters and slowly, it subdues the churning waves to nothing and peters out itself when it’s cleansing powers are exhausted.”


3. “Am I Alive?” by Sean and Steph Mayo

Am I Alive?


“We felt a necromantic vibe in Max’s music. But instead of simply “the dead rising” he also included a xylophone, carnival-esque bit mixed with some natural thunderstorm tracks. So we wanted to try to portray a living yet lonely doll in a room filled with abandoned and forgotten toys. It has been many years since any love was present, and dust has settled in an dull layer over everything. She wonders if her thoughts and feelings are any different than others while she presses her tiny hands against the window pane between her and the pouring rain.”


4. “When the Lights Turn Off” by Christopher Baldacci

“I had three thoughts when I first saw the Mayo’s fantastic build. First was a feeling of ominous mystery, a feeling of enchantment, and finally a feeling of life. Three themes developed: the mystery theme is played in the opening bars by the piano, while violins and contrabasses play sul tasto (over the fingerboard). The theme is repeated again half way through, (at the beginning of the second part) as the room changes. The theme of enchantment is repeated often, and is woven through the whole piece even as the mood and key changes. It is first heard when there is 1:39 left in this video. Finally the theme of the toy coming to life is heard at the end (in the second video), where the piano drums a monotonous rhythm to simulate the toy’s first steps.

In the first half of the song (part 1 here on Flickr), the song describes the room musically, first with the familiar melody from “Hedwig’s Theme” by John Williams to represent the Harry Potter poster marking the wall. It seemed fitting since the same magical mystery accompanies the Mayo’s build. Then a xylophone beats out notes, a snare drum denotes the small toy soldier, and a full set of metallic timbres sing “Round and Round the Mulberry Bush” in a minor key to signify the broken Jack-in-the-Box.

Throughout it all I tried to keep the sense of tension by keeping the strings playing high, sustained chords, and using the “pinched souding” double reed family of woodwinds – Bassoon, Contrabassoon, Cor Anglais, and the unique and tensely sweet “Oboe d’Amore.” I also tried to feature the Piano, Celesta, Harp, Xylophone, Triangle, and Flute to convey that ‘toy like’ sound. Especially in the final seconds, glissandos and sharp differences in range lead up to a unfulfilled climax…always suggesting…what really happened?”


5. “Protego Maxima” by Simon Liu

Protego Maxima


6. “Ophidian Fiend” by Ian Spacek

“I wanted my music to tell a story, thus I attempted to use orchestration to interpret the different elements of Simon’s build. The opening brass is intended to represent the fortress. I tried to give the brass a majestic yet slightly sorrowful tone to portray the uncertain fate of the castle. As the central character of the MOC is a snake, my score utilizes a brass instrument called a serpent (predecessor to the trombone). I also included a hint of glass harmonica to represent the glass-like cylinder surrounding the fortress. The squeaky/scratchy sound in the second half of the piece is a musical technique called col legno. Col legno, meaning with wood, instructs the string players to use the wooden side of their bows. I image the col legno as serpent scales scrapping against the glass-like wall. Once the brass at the beginning is over, the entire composition is an ominous build-up to nothingness! The music doesn’t have resolve, because Simon’s build represents an unpredictable moment. Will the serpent destroy the castle or just sit there stupidly smiling? The creation doesn’t provide an answer so neither does my composition.”


7. “Wings of Hope by Tyler Clites

Wings of Hope - 01


“This piece was entirely inspired from Ian’s piece, Orphidian Fiend. Ian’s musical piece sounded very mysterious and enigmatic. It made me think of some sort of puzzle reminiscent of Indiana Jones or a video game. I imagine this statue could be found deep in the heart of an ancient temple where you are tasked with finding an artifact to activate the statue’s wings.”