Giving voice to the minute data of our existence
What if music was a thing you had to create from scratch? And by scratch, I don’t mean that you pick up a guitar and pluck out some semblance of a song—but that you have to go out and invent the guitar first, guided by the base properties of physical acoustics and the mandate that it is different than the last instrument you invented, and thereby the song is new. Would anybody make music if that was what they’d have to do?
The members of the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana might. As their website proclaims: The Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana (LOLs) is a research and performance ensemble dedicated to the exploration of real-time computational technologies and digital media for the purpose of group music making.
Though one could say they are just as much in the business of music inquiry. They are a digital cabal seeking sonic answers to the age-old question, “What happens if I do this?”
The LOLs operate generally as a quintet of LSU students—pulled from the university’s School of Music, AVATAR project and the CCT Lab for Creative Arts & Technologies—huddled over a crescent of computers on small tables making weird noises. Trey Duplantis has been one of those people performing with the orchestra since the spring semester of 2012, despite not necessarily intending to be a music student. “I thought I was going to be more of a physics person and when we got to the unit on acoustics, there was this moment of ‘Oh.’ ”
The rapture found in epiphany is the thread running throughout the LOLs. In Quartet for Colors by the South Korean Ph.D. student Yemin Oh, the performers hold up balls encrusted with LED lights to be picked up by the cameras on the laptops. The visual stimulus is then combined in the software the composer writes, and sound and images result from it. There is a reason to it all: moving the light ball vertically affects the pitch while horizontally modifies, as Yemin explains, the grain of the sound. I won’t pretend to fully understand what that means exactly, but it is fun, even funny, to watch these studious people wave colored balls around and have sounds emerge from it.
“I want to expand the territory of the music,” Yemin explains. “In computer music, if you know the coding and are on it, you can make any kind of sound you want.” Yemin’s piece has a curious theatricality to it, all that waving around of lights. “I’m interested in the visualization. Without the visual gestures, computer music can get pretty boring to watch.”
Computer music has been around for nearly a century, starting with pieces painstakingly written on room-sized synthesizers by scientists in the fifties. “These guys out in California in the seventies wanted to play electronic music together, as a group. That’s what I wanted to do in electronic music, to jam with my buddies.” explains Ben Taylor, a LOL member and veteran of other laptop orchestras. Taylor studied under these composers at Mills College and specialized in computer music across networks. He bounded into the interview with a Frisbee in hand, brimming with energy, speaking with such zeal about computer musicians sending numbers to each other, one can almost see them tossed through the air.
“When you are playing violin with somebody else, you can hear what they are playing. But when you are playing with someone you can’t repeat these same thirteen notes in a row at the exact same time—and with a computer you can,” beams Taylor. “To be able to send data to each other or do superhuman things like play two hundred notes in a second, that’s really interesting, obviously.”
That level of interest is often the dividing line between considering what they do to be composing music or just playing with computers. John Cage, the founding father of experimental music, embraced the gimmick side of the avant garde, making music by transcribing data off star maps or flipping coins or, in the case of his infamous piano piece 4’ 33”, not playing any notes at all. “The good kind of music that comes out of this, the stuff that is valid beyond being a gimmick, is music that deals with what it means to live now,”explains Taylor. “When I use computer sounds or make a Facebook mashup, it is about what makes up the material of our lives.”
This strikes a chord with anyone who finds more of their life being mediated through a screen or a touchpad or hunched over a phone. We can lament the frittering away of our pre-wired selves all we want, or complain about another round of Facebook changes, or we can get in touch with what it means to be who we are in this time.
The music performed by the LOLs varies widely, from playful pieces involving Wii controllers mimicking light sabres and carillon bells, to more introspective work that gives voice to the precise, minute data of our existence. The computers thereby become a musical tool just like a guitar or a violin. The technology and techniques have even outpaced the term “laptop orchestra” as these musicians explore music that can be made in web browsers or with apps on mobile phones. As our lives become more entwined in the machine, we can take some solace that behind the weird noises and waving lights around and whatnot, there is still music to be made from our lives.
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