Cell Phone Symphony

60 cell phones go off simultaneously in the bag check area of The Strand bookstore in Manhattan.

Conductor: Agent Kula
DV Cams: Agents Shafer, EMartin, Adams
Digital Photography: Agents Nicholson, Rainswept
Audio Smugglers: Agents King, Arnheiter
Mission Inspired By: Agent Pinteresque

Last Spring I received an email from someone who had heard about us on This American Life. He wrote:

There’s a scene I’ve been wanting to pull off, but I don’t have the manpower. Feel like helping?

This is the gist: you know The Strand? (I work there). Know the bag check? As you can imagine, with all those bags and coats and things, people leave their cell phones with the guy. Occasionally they go off.

What I’m thinking is, you get a group of people, thirty or so, who all come into the shop and check their bags with their phones in ‘em. At some later point, every single phone checked into the bag check starts to ring at the same time. It’d be bedlam.

Like to help?


I loved the idea, but at the time we were busy preparing for our U2 Mission. A few weeks ago I decided it was time to make it happen. I got back in touch with the guy and found that while he no longer worked at the Strand bookstore, he still definitely wanted us to try the idea.

I did a few undercover surveys of the store and noted that the bag check area, which is located right by the front door and across from the registers, had about 120 cubbies.

I executed a test run by myself. I arranged for Agent Kula to call my phone several times and then placed it in my bag and checked it. I could definitely hear the phone going off in the bag, but none of the employees were fazed. As our informant had told us, it was a pretty common occurrence. We would have to get a pretty large number of participants to cause a scene.

After delaying the mission for a week thanks to the “Blizzard of ’06″, about 120 agents met on Saturday night in the 15-degree cold. We convened on the north end of Union Square Park, about a quarter of a mile away from the Strand.

The participants didn’t know ahead of time what they would be doing; they were just told to bring a backpack and a cell phone. After everyone had arrived, I explained the mission to the group.

The first step was to divide everyone up by cell phone brand. In addition to creating a cacophony of 60 phones going off at once, I also wanted to have different sections play at different times, like a symphony. Instead of the “string section”, we would have the “Samsung section”.

The crowd divided into brands and each group tried to find a common ring tone that all of their phones had. The Nokia group had the “Nokia Tune”, Motorola folks had “Hello Moto”, etc. Those without common ring tones would either partner up with someone who did, or partner with someone else without a common tone. Agents began to pair off and trade phone numbers, deciding who would enter the store and who would be a caller.

After the groups were in place and everyone had traded numbers, it was time to begin the mission. Small groups of agents headed down one at a time to enter the store and check their bags. We wanted to avoid creating a huge line at the bag check, which would certainly cause suspicion.

The Strand Bookstore is a massive store filled with “18 miles” of used books. It’s very popular and often crowded. It’s also usually very quiet. There was no house music playing the night of our mission, thankfully.

Some agents waited for the line to disappear at the bag check while pretending to shop on the street. After checking your bag, the instructions were to shop somewhere in the store far from the bag check area, preferably on the second floor or in the basement. We didn’t want to create a crowd of obvious spectators.

We took several steps to covertly document our mission. Agent EMartin filmed from the street, looking in through the window (it was night time, so they couldn’t see out). Agent Shafer smuggled a camera inside in his jacket and filmed from the second floor mezzanine. For audio, we checked Agent King’s camera in a bag, putting it right in the middle of the symphony. We also checked a mini-disc recorder, and I was mic’d with a wireless lav.

Once everyone was in the store with their bag checked, I called our conductor Agent Kula back in Union Square and told him it was time for the first movement. He counted down and had all 60 callers hit send simultaneously.

At once, the phones started ringing in the bag check. In addition to the pre-set groups of phones, there were many more random ring tones firing off in a maelstrom of high-pitched beeps. The primary audience for this mission was the Strand employees, specifically the two who were working at the bag check.

The male employee laughed and smiled throughout the entire mission. He didn’t seem too concerned with figuring out how it was happening, but he did offer one thought, “It’s cold outside. These phones are hot in here!”

The female employee seemed to be having fun as well, but she expressed more concern and was very interested in figuring it all out. Some memorable quotes from her:

** “1… 2… 3… 4… 5… There are five phones going off!”
** “When 8:00 comes, I’m out of here.”
** (To the register employees) “Do you guys want to come back here? I’m really afraid– cell phones should not all go off at the same time.”
** “There’s a Japanese ghost in here, dudes.”

Throughout the mission I was in communication with Agent Kula via cell phone giving him a report from the field and planning our next move. After the initial blast of phones, we took a five-minute break to let things get back to normal. Kula then got his performers ready and signaled for the second blast, another round of all 60 phones at the same time.

Other Strand employees started getting curious and trying to figure out what was going on. Some laughed. Some complained. Some rolled their eyes.

They started shouting at each other across the store, explaining what was going on.

News traveled to employees in other parts of the store. At one point an announcement was made over the loudspeaker, “Attention Strand customers: your phones are going off at the bag check.”

Customers checking out or getting their (non-ringing) bags started noticing as well.

The man above couldn’t stop smiling. He just kept looking at all the bags until he finally said quietly to himself, “It’s like a symphony.”

The working theory after the first two rings was that one phone was going off first and then triggering the other phones. I think some thought that the “triggering” phone was defective and the whole thing was a coincidence, and others thought that the guilty phone was specifically modified to make others ring. Either way, it was agreed that if they could find the phone that rang first and shut it off, the rest would stop as well.


Searching for ringing phones


“I think I found the first phone.”

One employee behind a counter close to the bag check continually searched for the perfect metaphor for what he was witnessing.

My favorites of his musings:

** “It sounds like cats fighting on hot coals!”
** “It’s like a David Lynch movie in here. It doesn’t make sense.”
** “It sounds like a flea circus with bad clowns!”

After the second blast, we started in with the specific orchestra sections. Each section had its own movement where its phones rang by themselves. We had six total movements:

** Nokia, “Nokia Tune”
** Motorola, “Hello Moto”
** Motorola, “Snaggle”
** Samsung, “Samsung Tune”
** Treo, “Treo”
** LG, “Hallelujah”

The male employee continued to smile as each ring tone grouping started and ended.

After the individual movements, one phone got a solo, ringing all by itself. One agent had created a unique ring tone for himself, so we figured its individuality deserved the spotlight. Agent Ace$Thugg was given the honor of performing the solo.

Eventually the manager got involved. He was convinced that it was a bunch of “NYU students from a class” and sent the female employee out to try to find people making the calls elsewhere in the store. Of course, our callers were five blocks away standing in the ridiculous cold. Unable to find any callers, he tried to pinpoint which bags were ringing and then take note of their location.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

The timing of his search could not have been more perfect. Almost exactly when he made the decision to start writing down the locations of the offending bags, our grand finale (all phones going off repeatedly for a few minutes) ended. It went from 60 phones ringing to complete silence in a matter of seconds. He was only able to write down three bag locations before it was too late. He then got out a Polaroid camera and waited for the bag owners to claim their bags.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

I gave the signal to the covertly shopping agents that it was time to leave. Our symphony had lasted about twenty minutes total, including pauses in between movements. We trickled out slowly, trying our best not to create a telling line at the bag check. Most agents ended up making purchases. There are always some great deals in the Strand!

When the first of the three “marked” bag owners tried to claim his bag, the manager took a Polaroid of him and informed him he was “banned from the Strand.” He just shrugged and left.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

Pretty soon there was a decent size line at the bag check, and the manager spoke up and addressed everyone in line, “Anybody who is in line who was a part of that last little bit there, I’m going to ask you to either A) Not return to the Strand ever B) just don’t do that again.” I think once he realized how many of us there were, he backed off on his idea of banning so many customers. He was a little bit aggressive overall, but in the end no harm was done. Wearing my hidden microphone, I went up to him about ten minutes after the mission asking him where to find a particular book, and then asked, “What happened up there earlier?” He repeated his “NYU class” theory, and then admitted it was pretty funny– but that it would have been much funnier if it had happened when he wasn’t on duty.

The manager seemed to loosen up even more later in the night. When one of the other agents with a marked bag checked out, the bag check guy called him over. After she refused to give him any indication as to what had occured, he requested that she “Tell that guy with the hat that I banned that he’s not really banned.”

There was a security guard near the bag check the entire time, but he seemed pretty unfazed by the whole thing. I guess he was busy looking for actual criminals.

In the end it seems like it was a fun experience for the employees and customers who got to hear it, and that’s exactly what we wanted. That’s my report from the store. Here’s Agent Kula’s report from the outside.

Agent Kula

The 60 or so people in the caller group were TROOPERS. Here they’d come out on the coldest day of the year, with no idea of what they’d be doing, and then they get the assignment of “Cool, so you guys’ll be standing outside here for the next 45 MINUTES…”

I wouldn’t have blamed anybody if they’d wanted to bail right then – but remarkably I didn’t hear one complaint. (Except from my feet, which were goddamn FROZEN THROUGH.)

So big time props to those folks who braved the cold. The highlights from my group:

**There was so much hype leading up to that first call – “Everyone ready? HERE WE GO!!” – that when we completed it, no one quite knew how to react. Like, we had no idea what it sounded like in the store, if it was working, etc – on our end at least, it was totally anti-climactic. I think I even said through the bullhorn, “So yeah … pretty exciting on this end, huh? (beat) All right, NEXT CALL!”

*At any given moment, there were at least, like, a half-dozen callers jumping up and down, phones to their ear, in an effort to stay warm.

*At one point while we were mid-call, a cop car went out of its way to cruise by us. I suppose we looked suspicious from a distance – a big group assembled in Union Square on a night where no one else was out in the cold.

But when they did their close-up drive-by, all they saw was 60 people silently making phone calls. Not exactly a 187.

*All the groups were great and on-point in their calls but, being that I myself have a Motorola phone, I got a personal kick out of it each time we cued the “Hello, Motos.” Terrible ring tone – but on this night? Perfect.

*I loved the cheers and applause that went up from the rest of the callers when Agent Ace$Thugg began his “solo.”

*For the finale we built until every caller in every group was calling back and calling back and calling back. This went on for about three minutes straight until, in true conductor style, I brought my arms down in a big flourish and everyone hung up together in a big “final note.” The sound of dozens of flip phones all smacking shut in unison was quite satisfying.

*Most of the callers were gone before I could even finish thanking them for coming out. It’s safe to assume their feet were goddamn FROZEN THROUGH, too. `Cause did I mention it was cold outside?

*After we’d finished, one of the callers asked if I would pose for a cell phone picture with him – apparently in my scarf and beard he thought I looked enough like Coldplay singer Chris Martin that he could prank his friends into believing it. That’s Improv Everywhere for you: one prank begets another – and they were all yellow.

Mission Accomplished.


OTHER RESOURCES:

Agent Rainswept’s Flickr photoset (133 photos)

Prior art: DIALTONES (A TELESYMPHONY) (A more sanctioned Cell Phone Symphony that took place in Austria in 2001)

Also see the comments section below for reports from many of the other agents involved.

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79 Responses to Cell Phone Symphony

  1. Agent Jester says:

    I arrived in the later part of the arrivals at Strand – so late in fact, that my messenger bag with my cell phone was denied upon my entrance! I was actually given the go-ahead to walk around the store with my bag on the one day I wanted to check it in! Despite this minor setback, after reaching into my back and setting my phone to vibrate I casually walked around the first floor to hear some funny dialogue between the Strand store employees. After a short time I overheard an employee say something along the lines of: "its live-art…its an installation so just go with it." It seemed that while certain employees didn’t know exactly what was going on at Strand, they made it a point to let everyone know that they knew SOMETHING was going on, and that they weren’t going to be fooled by it. Well played, Strand. Well played.

  2. Melissa says:

    I was one of the agents located inside the Strand store. I was part of the treo orchestra and my boyfriend was the one who was in charge of calling my phone. I happened to be on the ground level of the store when all the phones started going off. I overheard one of the workers say to another worker, "you mean ALL the phones in bag check are ringing? and the workers at the register were like, "Find the phone that’s ringing! Which one is it?" to where the bag check guy said, "All of them!!!" haha It was a blast.

  3. Hannah says:

    This is butt-ass awesome. Sux I was off that night, though.

  4. Agent Montague says:

    Philip Glass would be proud.

  5. agent scoboco says:

    freezing or not (and, yes, that was just about the coldest i’ve ever been), it was a total pleasure to be a part of bringing some joyous silliness to this amazing city. thanks especially agent kula for your fine conducting.

    ps: love the strand-ers "first-phone" theory .. like patient zero!

  6. Agent Jessica says:

    For my first mission, this was a definate success. Although I just so happened to have one of the three bags that was located with a ringing phone so when I approached the counter with my tag, the security guard recognized the number, "A26, A26, cell phone!" The manager comes over with his arms crossed demanding to know what that whole stunt was all about. I honored the code and didn’t reveal my sources, replying with, "I’m sorry I don’t know what you’re talking about…" He continued to describe the bit, "You know exactly what I’m talking about… there was a line out the door, cell phones all started going off at once, there was some person over there taking pictures… someone video taping!" "There was someone video taping?" (that made him start huffing a little more, oops) "Well, I don’t know if this is part of a class or what…blah blah blah… this is my place of business…blah, customers…blah… well, just tell that guy with the hat that I banned that he’s not really banned."
    hah. mission accomplished.

  7. Nick says:

    Haha, I’m the guy in the picture who was "banned from the Strand". This was my first time doing a mission and it was lots of fun. I wish I could’ve thanked the guy who called my phone but I had to leave early. I hope to do another mission soon as I had a great time!

  8. McGruff says:

    Sweet time! When you guys comin’ to CHICAGO!!!!!

  9. MadDog says:

    It was my first mission and despite the cold, it was a lot of fun. I never knew the perils of having an old phone until that night when I could not find a common ringtone. Still, it was a great time and I look forward to operating in the next mission.

  10. Agent Barth says:

    I learned that night that i take for granted having feeling in most parts of my body, however, despite the in-humane weather, the mission was quite enjoyable.

  11. J.P. says:

    I was a caller, afraid I was gonna lose a toe or two from the cold, but I had fun anyway. My favorite moment: when the "soloist" came up, someone in the calling crowd yelled "FREEBIRD!"

  12. AYpianoman says:

    So yeah — good times had by all…except for my left foot, whose toes took over an hour to regain consciousness…

    Wish I could have been inside to see what was going on, but it was kind of neat knowing that something was happening that we couldn’t see.

    Great mission. Wish I’d thought of it myself.

    Until next mission…

  13. Agent Kendall says:

    I was in the group that went to the Strand in the LG Hallelujah section. I’d never been there before, so after checking my back pack I went up the second floor and got lost in the back. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hear too much so I walked back over to the stairs where I heard phones going off and then the announcements about that happening. Something I thought funny was the reaction by some agents of not knowing what to make of the announcements. As if we were completely innocent. Another plus was finding a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert which I unfortunately haven’t read until now. Then I finally saw Agent Todd give the signal that the mission was over and walked back to Union Square to hear some stories. The guy that gave me my back pack seem to drop it on the counter, but I wasn’t sure if this was because of the ruckus or just his way of doling out bags. I had a good laugh when I got outside and saw the 6 missed calls on my phone.

    So thanks IE for the mission and thanks Strand for the cheap book!

  14. Agent Rand says:

    Maybe it’s misguided leftover Bumblebee loyalty, but since I’d follow Agent Kula through hell, following his lead through an hour of 10-degree phone dialing was a cakewalk. I agree that part of the fun was wondering what was going on a few blocks away — it was like imagination calisthenics. My mind is so buff now.

  15. not you says:

    hope everyone who does this shit realizes that comments are constantly censored from this board, giving no real, cutting out everything critical and leaving only the self congratulatory. the vast majority of people who know of this "prank" are quick to see your arrogance and disregard for working people (i.e. making them the butt of your "chaos")… and how fucking annoying cell phone yuppies are.

  16. fishes and barrels says:

    to everyone who participated in the "cellphone symphony" "prank": if you choose to spend your Saturday nights siphoning snot from Guy Debord’s very dead frontal lobe- that’s your business. Godspeed and all. But as one of the (NOT!) (per your mission statement) smiling visages depicted on your ludicrously self-congratulatory website, I gotta tell you: you are on some Allen Funt shit. Candid Camera for the unbearably smug. Or, more accurately (considering your penchant for "Agent:Dipshit" style designations) that mid-90′s MTV talent vaccum "Buzzkill." (Remember it? Didn’t think so.) Anyway, congratulations – my buzz, such as it was, you killed. Allow me to return the favor: a few of my Strand co-workers decided to post comments to your message board and were uncermoniously booted. Considering your purported goal of fomenting"chaos"_ (your words) and seeing what "happens" (again) – this seems, at the very least, pretty fucking weak. Because here is what "happened" – your played an asinine "prank" unworthy of even the least self-aware college student ("NYU class" was a compliment I guess) on some tired working people and got called, I believe, DOUCHEBAGS, in return. This was obviously more than your sensitive, actory hearts could take – (Life is, like,…hard, I know) but at the risk of adding salt to ex cetera, I concur with my coworkers: YOU ARE DOUCHEBAGS.

  17. IE Webmaster says:

    Regarding the two comments above this: It has always been the policy of this site to delete comments of anonymous haters with nothing productive to say. Last night someone posted “You are douchebags” eight times in a row. Yes, we deleted them. Yes, we deleted all of the other anonymous posts that were posted last night (all posted, we figured, by the same person.) We welcome constructive criticism, but remember this is our home. If you make a mess, we’re going to clean it up. Just as if someone spray painted “You are douchebags” on the wall of The Strand, it would be promptly removed.

  18. a friend says:

    This project sounds fantastic. One possibility for the future is to ratchet it up a notch and get political with it. What if something like this happened in a government building–and the ringtones themselves had different protest messages on them? I suppose you’d all have to agree on the target of protest, but there are many things going on presently in the US that almost every person would agree is problematic (like present levels of government corruption, the incompetence of the Katrina disaster prevention and relief in New Orleans, etc.). You might take inspiration from what happened in the Philippines in the summer of 2005, when President Gloria Arroyo’s wiretapped comments supposedly about election rigging were floated online and then transformed into ringtones and communicated everywhere, at protests, on the streets of Manila, and eventually as car horns! Choosing the target based on accessibility of cellphone placement and appropriateness of the site for a peaceful protest would have to be considered. One might also want to use disposable phones and do away with the programmed ringtones if one doesn’t want to get caught, although as a peaceful protest one should in principle be able to use one’s free speech rights to do orchestrate such an event. I’m sure if you collectively considered some possibilities you’d be able to come up with something very effective and appropriate. Anyway, just a thought…

  19. Jacey says:

    Advice for “not you” and “fishes and barrels”– The following web domains are up for grabs:
    Partypoopers.net and Imafuddyduddy.com. With a little imagination and some hard work, you can set up shop & have absolutely no fun on your own sites. Let us light hearted folks gather here to share a few chuckles.

  20. Agent Boles says:

    Wow, Agent Kula DOES look like Chris Martin in these pictures! I wish I’d thought to get a picture of myself with "Chris" to show off to my friends!