Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana
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Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2010 | SELF

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2010
Band Electronic Experimental


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"Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana blends experimentalism, music and new technology in Manship Theatre performance"

It's the start of an orchestral performance at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, and seven performers enter from stage right, dressed in the requisite black and white. Each stands in front of their instrument, fingers poised and ready, and with a centralized nod, they begin to play.

Except their fingers aren't hitting ivory keys or strumming strings — they're typing on or swiping the trackpads of seven Macbooks, each perched on a black draped table with the iconic apple glowing in front of them.

The Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana performed Wednesday night, playing pieces not originally intended for the group but instead reimagined versions for this particular ensemble. Founded in 2009 by LSU School of music director Dr. Stephen David Beck, the LOLs are just one of many laptop orchestras popping up around the country. These orchestras combine the musicianship of the traditional medium as we know it with the technical wizardry of the digital age.

"It's the best music you've never heard," Beck said. "The whole point is to challenge what it means to be a musician in the 21st century. We also want it to be music that's evocative and people will relate to."

The laptops are loaded up with programs, often created by the musicians themselves, which play or aid in the playing of music. The orchestra is linked together on the same network, which allows the laptops to electronically communicate. This also allows the music of one player to influence the music of another.

The experimental music they play sounds like just that — experimental. In the course of Wednesday's performance, the LOLs created music that traversed a spectrum with the mimicked sounds of string instruments on one side, and what you might hear inside the clicking of a sci-fi thriller alien's brain on the other.

"It's so new, we get to pave our own way in how we want to do it," said Lindsey Hartman, an LOL member and experimental music and digital media doctorate student at the LSU School of Music. "I've seen people do scores where it's specifically notated with actual pitches and they mean 'click here, do this.'"

When you watch a performance, it's likely the musicians are sending chat messages to communicate much like an instant messaging system. This IMing is one way the musicians get around the idea of a traditional conductor.

Although laptop orchestras found their start about ten years ago at Princeton University — a fact that's somewhat disputed if you happen to ask a Stanford University graduate — the origins of computerized music are actually in the 1940s with the development of musique concrète, according to LSU School of Music experimental music and digital media doctoral student Ben Taylor.

"(Musique concrète) involved taking analog tape, like a cassette tape ... and cutting it up ... and then taping it back together and recording sounds from the world or instruments," Taylor explained. "They made these very detailed, intricate compositions from sounds from the real world. It was a beautiful way of recording technology and making it into art."

Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana
The Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana is part of the experimental music and digital media program at the LSU School of Music. Here, they perform on Wednesday at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge.
Chelsea Brasted, | The Times-Picayune
But arguably the best part of music-making — jamming with your friends — wasn't possible until later in the 1970s with the development of the do-it-yourself consumer computer.

"It originated with the League of Automatic Composers in 1978. They would build their own instruments, literally their own computers and processors they would order from a mail-order company," Hartman said, who currently examines and tries to re-create long-lost computer programs used to make music.

"Cellists and trumpet players play together; the computer musicians should be able to do the same thing. We should be able to play together in a social situation and not just be alone in our bedrooms," Taylor said. "It should be a collaborative venture."

But like all great revolutions, laptop orchestras are not without their opposition. Jesse Allison, assistant professor of experimental music and digital media at the LSU School of Music, and co-director of the LOLs, said he regularly is posed with two questions regarding the musical art form.

The first question, he said, is whether or not a laptop is an instrument, and the second is whether or not laptop music is music.

"As far as being an instrument, it's absolutely an instrument. If you look at something like an organ, you push down keys ... and mechanically it's opening a valve, and air goes through ... It makes no difference between you hitting a key or hooking up a computer to do the same thing," Allison said. "And we make an engine of some sort, and then you interact with it, what do you do? Push keys. Blow a reed. Shake your phone around." - The Times-Picayune

"Group uses technology to create imaginative music styles"

While spring classes begin and students get back into the school grind, a small group of musicians is preparing to go on tour making music in unusual ways.

The Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana is a group of seven students, one professor and one assistant professor dedicated to playing music using laptops, Wii remotes, joysticks, iPads and other "instruments" to produce a unique style reminiscent of music featured in science-fiction movies.

"We're trying to find interesting angles," said Jeff Albert, experimental music and digital media graduate student. "They make you experiment with different parts of musicianship."

Albert said the group also uses real instruments, including trombone, tuba, flute and voices, but does not use a piano.

"Our objective is to create new and different musicians and a different way to be musically virtuosic," he said. "It's a way of engaging people in the music."

LOL is going on a four-city southern tour to Mobile, Ala., and Atlanta, Columbus and Athens, Ga., according to Stephen Beck, director of the Laptop Orchestra and Haymon professor of composition and computer music and Center for Computation and Technology faculty. He said the group will also perform April 4 in the Manship Theatre.

Beck said everyone in the group is responsible for writing programs, performing and creating the music.

"We write our own software. ... It's like creating compositions," Beck said.

The group types codes as it is playing music, along with manipulating joysticks or cameras in the laptops to create different sounds, Beck said. Some pieces are improvised while others are memorized.

LOL uses Apple computers, but Beck said most of the software the group uses does not depend on the computer brand.

Beck said Apple computers work best for the group because they cater to people who are not familiar with computers and to people who are computer savvy.

"It's an environment that gives us the best of both worlds," he said.

Beck also said the UNIX core in Apple computers prevents the whole project from crashing if one part of it fails, which would be catastrophic in the middle of a performance.

Programs the group uses include Max for audio and video, and Chuck, a lower level of programming language of audio and video, according to Beck.

Members of the Laptop Orchestra are currently building their own hemispherical speakers to create better sounds for performances.

"They become the instrument's body to mimic acoustic sounds," said Jesse Allison, assistant professor of experimental music and digital media and CCT faculty member.

Allison said the hemispherical speakers also supercede average speakers because they do not have as much of a disconnect between speakers.

They allow sound to travel in all directions from the speaker

instead of in just one direction, making it easier for members to play with one another.

LOL began in spring 2009 as a graduate-student seminar class focused on researching and trying new ideas of laptop programming and technology that escalated into what it is today, Beck said.

"The class is an experimental lab, and the performing ensemble is the fruit of those experiments," Albert said.

Funding for the organization comes through the Senate for Computation and Technology and a Center for Digital Innovation Grant, Beck said.

Lindsey Hartman, experimental music and digital media

graduate student, is the only female in the group, but she said although it is a different experience for her to be the only woman, it is a part of musicianship.

"As a musician, you get used to different things," she said.

Hartman said the computer and electronic fields are currently dominated by men.

Beck expressed excitement about the development of technology from his college days. - The Daily Reveille

"The Bottom Line: Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana is praiseworthy, innovative"

The Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana, or the LOL, is an amazing example of the kind of innovation stirring the business world.

Markets and economies tend to go through cycles. Large, multi-national companies frequently dominate a market, only to be usurped by a small, innovative company.

Entrepreneurs of the University: you may very well be inspired by the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana's free circuit-filled symphonies to create the world's next billion-dollar idea. - The Daily Reveille


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