Turning software, dance, and styrofoam into sound


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Driving rhythm echoes from a multitude of machines, filling the practice space with noise. Huddled in the epicenter, nested in a mass of wires and computers, six composers rehearse a new composition using an empty can, pot, Coke bottle, and Styrofoam takeout box. 

Miniature contact pads, resembling electrodes, feed the percussion into each musician’s laptop setup. Custom speakers amplify the sound, and by the end of the performance, the top of the Styrofoam container has cracked. Using a sheared wire as a drumstick is an easy solution as the University of Iowa Laptop Orchestra prepares for its next performance, on Friday.

“Either you’re playing instruments and manipulating the sounds digitally, looping them or bringing in new sounds, creating sounds out of the computer, or having another performer and [the composer] manipulating it with a laptop,” orchestra research assistant Jason Palamara said.

A relatively new phenomenon, laptop orchestras around the country are paving the way for a new direction in electronic music, he said. Now in its second year as a part of the UI Center for New Music, the Laptop Orchestra is taught in an undergraduate class. 

Jason Palamara is a research assistant to the Laptop Orchestra of the University of Iowa. A founding member of the two-year-old ensemble, he continues to help guide its progress. Listen to him talk about how and why he became involved in such a unique organization.

Multimedia compiled by Michael Kadrie and edited by Lily Abromeit

Mastering the form

Participating composers come from a variety of majors. No matter their background, students learn to write their own music software and help craft unique compositions. Center for New Music Director David Gompper said learning programming was not a problem for students.

“Pedagogically, one needs at least six months to ‘learn’ [the software] in order to apply it properly and another six months to actually create the musical work.” he said. “All they need is time.”  

On Friday, the ensemble, as well as groups and soloists, will perform a variety of pieces in the University Capitol Center Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m.

The music integrates dance, poetry, video, and more traditional acoustic instruments. However, every piece is centered on at least one laptop and its creation or manipulation of sound. 

UI dance and industrial engineering major Courtney Paulsen’s performance with Palamara, titled “M@rg!n of Error,” uses a custom-built light sensor to capture Paulsen’s motion, creating sounds. Palamara then loops the sounds via several laptops to create a performance that, despite a planned framework, incorporates improvisation without sacrificing collaboration.

“The experience of controlling music by motion is almost a lot like learning a new instrument,”  Paulsen said. “The more I work with it, the more I am able to use it to help refine my movements … dancing, I feel as though certain movements correspond to certain sounds naturally, and [at] times the technology mimics it perfectly."

A digital voice

While laptops are capable of mimicking existing acoustic instruments, they also create sounds all their own.

“[Electronically generated sounds] are different enough to create completely new soundscapes,” Gompper said. “At the moment, acoustic instruments are still the model, [and] it will take some time, more than 100 years, for electronics to catch up and establish their own models.” 

The freshness of the form means the genre’s identity evolves continually based on the software and hardware developed and used by the composer.

“It’s like the birth of the piano … can you imagine being at a concert and seeing it for the first time?” Palamara said. “The person who built the pipe organ might be [a better example]. Every new composer added to the mix completely redesigns the thing."

Ensemble member Andrew Thierauf’s composition, “Quartet,” uses webcams. Dancers move inflatable balls in front of the computers to manually record and manipulate live performances of acoustic instruments on the spot.

Laptop orchestras are so new — fewer than 10 years old — they have yet to infiltrate popular culture. Most notable names are associated with academic institutions.

“All experimental ideas require a laboratory, which are best suited to institutions of education,” Gompper said. “Laptop ensembles already exist outside of academia but are localized to the community that supports it.” 

Palamara said once students graduate from orchestras, they sometimes stagnate in the absence of fresh talent.

Glitches in the system

Composing for a laptop orchestra also brings some specific technical and rudimentary musical challenges.

Keeping tempo in group performances can become an issue because of latency, which is the time difference, generally 10 milliseconds, between a key stroke and the computer’s reaction. Though very brief, the cumulative effect of numerous keystrokes can eventually slow down the whole ensemble, he said.

The numerous creative solutions these kinds of hang-ups necessitate have brought about interesting qualities in the music.

“[In the class], all work on their own [software or hardware] … which does its own weird thing,” Palamara said.

Their custom-built hemisphere speakers are upside down wooden salad bowls fitted with six speakers. This configuration mimics the multidirectional sound of more familiar instruments and allows listeners to distinguish the individual efforts of musicians.

Modeled after speakers in use by the seminal Princeton laptop orchestra, they used up much of the Laptop Orchestra’s initial $20,000 grant.

“The sophistication of any acoustic instrument is far superior to any speaker,” Gompper said. “Just as cars and iPhones require a stronger battery, digital music requires the continual development of speakers. Until then, we are relegated to second-class status. But at least hemisphere speakers can imitate and come close to attaching itself to that live person.” 

Emerging horizons

Innovation is key in this newborn musical form, and dedicated laptop composers across the nation are continually sharing new bits of software and optimizing it for their own creative visions.

“Since [laptop orchestras] are tied to technology … you can’t have an attitude of this what we do, this is our genre, and this is how we perform. You have to be completely outside the box,” Palamara said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, we do poetry readings and dance, and that’s it’ … You have to say, What is the next step?’ ” 

Gompper said there are more than 30 institutions nurturing groups of emerging laptop composers.

Eventually, computer-based orchestras — or their progeny — may earn a place in Carnegie Hall, carving out a lasting musical legacy.

“I don't think laptop orchestras will replace the symphony orchestra …  those instruments have a 500-year history of development … laptop orchestras simply cannot compete with the richness a symphony brings to an audience,” Gompper said. “But there are sounds that can be created that go beyond an acoustic instrument, and that is simply where we are heading. The saxophone was the last ‘new’ instrument to be developed, and since then, almost nothing. The world of new instruments, I believe, will come from the digital world.” 

UI Laptop Orchestra Concert 
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: University Capitol Center Recital Hall
Admission: Free

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