Laptop Orchestra: Where Music meets Technology

Maria D’Antonio

Orchestras tend to bring to mind a vast array of diverse performers playing equally diverse instruments led by grandiose gesturing conductors. However, the laptop orchestra is perhaps less visually stimulating, but altogether aurally engaging.

Nvate laptop orchestra Dan Trueman and Philipe Chatelain, BoSSa and PLOrk

Credit: Create Digital Music

Dan Trueman, co-founder of Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk, admits that watching a laptop orchestra does resemble a group of people simply checking their email, but he proposes the lack of visual stimuli allows the audience to focus more on the music in his article, “Why a laptop orchestra?”

The History: From Japan to the States

The history of the laptop orchestra begins with the history of the technology that makes it possible. Before the laptop orchestra there was an instrument called the bowed-sensor-speaker-array, or BoSSA, according to Trueman’s article.

The BoSSA is a spherical shaped speaker with a bow, similar to a violin bow. These speakers were originally designed to study the way an acoustic instrument emits sounds, that is, expanding from all points. Essentially, one could play a completely electronic instrument, but have it sound like an acoustic one.

Nvate laptop orchestra Dan Trueman and Philipe Chatelain, BoSSa and PLOrk

This is a bowed-sensor-speaker-array, or BoSSA.
Credit: Princeton

Although Trueman spent a few years playing and experimenting with the BoSSA, the first laptop orchestra was developed in 2002 by Philipe Chatelain, according to the Washington Post. The first laptop orchestra, like its descendants, allowed the performers to manipulate sounds in real time. Created by a Frenchman in Japan, it would be a few years before the United States began forming its own laptop orchestras.

Using the BoSSA as a starting point, Trueman and Perry Cook started to design the Princeton Laptop Orchestra as the ultimate mixture of performing music and technology. In 2005, PLOrk was fully formed, made up of students of computer science and music. PLOrk’s first concert debuted in January 2006, and its first “big” show occurred in April 2006 according to PLOrk’s website.

Challenges of the Laptop Orchestra

In some aspects the laptop orchestra is a bit simpler than a traditional orchestra. For instance, as Trueman points out in his article, it does not take years to master the instruments. Some songs can be learned in an afternoon. This makes it more accessible to the general populace. Also because there is literally less to see, the audience can focus on the actual manipulation of sounds.

That being said, the laptop orchestra certainly presents some rather unique challenges. One major one is the creation of instruments. Traditional instruments can be featured with the laptop orchestra, but the specific instruments in question are meta-instruments. The prefix meta is describing a transcendence. For example a meta-analysis would be an analysis of an analysis, so a meta-instrument can be described as making an instrument of an instrument.

According to an article featured in the International Conference for New Interfaces for Musical Expression, or NIME, meta-instruments are meant to capture and digitalize musical “gestures.” This means that performers can digitally manipulate the actual components of music during performance. According to Trueman’s article, the PLOrk performers may create their own instruments, but all performers will play them, and each instrument must synchronize with each other, or at least not create dissonance.

There is also the matter of sound quality, in the sense of acoustics. This problem is solved by the design of the BoSSA. The spherical speakers mimic acoustic sounds. Also, at least in PLOrk, each performer has their own speaker. So, when attending a PLOrk concert, the audience will see 15 spherical speakers, one for each player.

One last aspect to consider is whether or not to use visuals in conjunction with the performance. Traditional orchestras have built in visuals; the audience can watch the players or the conductor. Though visual stimulation would liven up the concert, but due to the nature of the laptop orchestra, sometimes the visuals may be distracting to the actual music.

Describing the Sound: A Form of Post-Modern Art

Nvate laptop orchestra Dan Trueman and Philipe Chatelain, BoSSa and PLOrk

Credit: Princeton

Laptop orchestras are a type of post-modern art. The focus is on the sound and the manipulation of sound and music for an aesthetic experience, rather than an emotional one. Instead of an almost narrative arc, or at least an emotional one, usually found in traditional orchestras, the emphasis is simply on the sound, giving it a rather minimalistic element.

The Spread

Since PLOrk’s inception, laptop orchestras have been spreading throughout the country and internationally. In 2008, Stanford University introduced SLOrk, according to the university’s website. Louisiana has its laptop orchestra called Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana or LOLs, inspired by PLOrk and SLOrk, according to the LOLs blog.

Slowly, but surely, laptop orchestras are gaining more attention, as they are a good representation of the 21st Century. They are the ultimate blend of music, art, and technology.

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