The School of Music 2014-15 Community of Composers

The Laptop Orchestra at UI

Historically, laptop orchestras were developed to give composers (and those interested in both music and programming) a platform for instrument/sound design that led to a public showing. Combining music, technology and live performance, a laptop orchestra is made up of four elements: laptops, human performers, controllers and custom-built multi-channel speakers. Laptop orchestras fuse human music-making with computer precision, which leads to the experimentation, creation and performance of music. Laptop orchestras came about because of the need not only to showcase ways in which sound can be manipulated via the computer, but how laptops that are networked can begin to interact with each other, both with and without human intervention.

Today it seems the actual “laptop” is very much front and center, placed at each performer’s seat, on stage, and visually integral to the sound-making process. And while it seems to the audience that many players are checking their email during a performance, there will come a time when the processor will disappear, replaced by, say, an object or a controller that manipulates sound, with the live processing placed “behind” the scenes and in the background. In traditional orchestras, the instruments actually create the sound from direct human manipulation. With electronic music, there is always a separation between the physical modeling and the device that projects sound, the speakers.

Laptop orchestras started first at Princeton in 2005, followed soon after by Stanford three years later. Today there are at least a dozen such ensembles principally organized within educational institutions – although an early prototype was the band called The Hub. Started by composers in 1986 in San Francisco, it is considered to be the first computer network music ensemble that performed with each other from distant locations, attempting to solve performer interactivity based on the exchange of musical control data and communication. Today, most communication between stations occurs either wired, in the same room, or wirelessly on local-area networks.

The Laptop Orchestra at the University of Iowa, or LOUi, grew out of the desire for our graduate composers, many of whom are involved in the Electronic Music Studio directed by Professor Lawrence Fritts, to find an easy and quick way to solve notational, formal and time-scale performance problems – what kind of sounds can they create, and how can they control and compose with those sounds in leading up to a staged performance.

Electronic music in Europe and most academic institutions have been built on the singular deterministic model of “the master composer”, developing a musical composition using powerful machines in a large studio and presenting the results in front of an audience with multiple black-boxed speakers on stage, lights dimmed. Today, musicians and composers can replicate that power with greater flexibility in home-built studios, and so the laptop orchestra becomes more of an aural feedback loop for the composer – a way to crowd-source ideas.

Download: PDF iconHemisphere Speaker Construction Manual.pdf by Zach Zubow, Ph.D.

Composers are interested in how a particular sonic or formal structure emerges out of a specific protocol – a strict set of rules. By networking both the machines and the people – where both are making real-time decisions — the technology helps to explore different social norms, different ways to make music socially, all of which express new ways of collaboration. And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the pedagogical aspect of this group project. Not only does a laptop orchestra push composers outside of their comfort zones and force collaboration with, say, computer science majors, but it has given them a hands-on experience building speakers from scratch – from drilling holes in wooden salad bowls from IKEA, to soldering toggle switches and making sure all connections were grounded properly. Thanks to a generous award from the Student Technology Fund in 2013, the composition program in the School of Music has been able to build the foundations necessary to mount a laptop orchestra that will be organized by the Center for New Music, and with it the ability for all students interested to create new music using digital means.   — David Gompper, June 2014