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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the March 29, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Take that Sousa! Laptop Music
There are some musicians who are inveterate collectors. They hold on to the first cornet or drum they played in elementary school, or the first medal they won for regional band competition in high school. Others like to keep old phonograph records, or eight-track tapes, or even CDs.
Dan Trueman collects laptop computers. An assistant professor of music at Princeton University and a composer who tends to hear things nobody else does, Trueman is at the vanguard of a movement that links computer scientists with musicians, the past with the future, the electric and the acoustic, space and time with sound. Trueman, softie and sentimentalist that he is, still has the first laptop he ever used to create music.
For at least the past decade, Trueman, a violinist by inclination and training, has produced music using his laptop computer. He is the co-leader and creative force of a new ensemble that threatens to revolutionize the relationship human beings have with their music. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra, PLOrk, is a group of 15 to 20 musicians who produce music totally via programs installed in their laptops or code that is simultaneously written for them. Instead of interfacing with their instruments via their hands, their mouths, or their capacity to produce wind, they use their computer mouse and a radical new device called an accelerometer, which is a series of microchips, embedded in a glovelike device, that allows musicians to change pitch, timbre, and volume. The music itself comes from six-sided hemispherical speakers designed by Trueman and co-leader Perry Cook, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton and a musician in his own right.
PLOrk will perform publicly for the first time Tuesday, April 4, at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus. This premiere performance will include works by Paul Lansky, Brad Garton, Curtis Bahn and Tomie Hahn, Dan Trueman, Scott Smallwood, Seth Cluett, Cook, and Ge Wang, with guest performances by renowned tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, accordion legend Pauline Oliveros, and the avant-garde New York percussion quartet So Percussion (who will be processing Hussain’s recorded music in real-time).
It is quite possible, says Trueman, that the advent of PLOrk may turn out to be a seminal event in the history of electronic music. Though he wasn’t quite willing to go that far, he does find the event significant. "This carves out a whole new realm of possibility for making laptop music," he says. "And I think there will be a lot of laptop music very different from what (PLOrk) is, but I do think this is carving out a sense of some of the possibilities that really weren’t there before."
"It is a pretty big jump," says Wang, one of the principal computer scientists in the PLOrk project. Wang, a PhD student in the computer science program and a guitarist, has created a language, known as ChucK, principally for laptop performance.
"There haven’t been many laptop performers who could truly give you the feeling of playing as a group," he says. "Nothing like the size of an orchestra. And trying to work that out musically from the audience point of view will be something different, and also from the musician’s point of view – how to organize this thing into a cohesive whole musically, it is pretty significant."
Lansky, one of the composers whose work will be showcased at Richardson, is a professor of composition at Princeton. He is one of the most important composers in electronic music history, having written electronic pieces since the 1970s, and he was one of the first composers to develop computer languages for music composition. The British art-rock band Radiohead sampled one of his pieces on its song "Idioteque" on the 2000 album "Kid A."
Like Trueman, Lansky took a cautious approach to PLOrk’s possible historical significance. "I wouldn’t call it seminal," he says. "It is the first of its kind. (But) seminal is a term you use cautiously." He says he enjoyed the challenge of writing for the ensemble. "It is an exciting challenge, but very difficult. The success of the venture will depend entirely on how people use it."
During a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago in a glass-enclosed rehearsal room/atrium in Princeton’s futuristic music building, the Woolworth Center, these elements all came together in a controlled, but still potentially overwhelming, rush of sound. The music had the ambiance of a conglomerate – snippets of voice, rumbling of percussion, the overarching ambience of more experimental electronica, and the energy of rock.
If you needed clues as to what this aggregation of young men and women – surrounding a few slightly older men and women, seemingly in positions of authority or veneration – were doing, your eyes, and ears, would be your windows in.
As Tomie Hahn, a small woman whose hair flows as gracefully as her movements, stood in front of the half-circle of young musicians, she appeared to be conducting the group. In reality, Hahn, who is an expert on Japanese dance and the shakuhachi flute, was simply using the broad, graceful movements derived from her dancing to interact with her musicians as well as create sounds; she, like the musicians in front of her, had control devices linked to her hands.
As she moved, the pitch of the notes she was playing oscillated, back and forth, with different waveforms and dimensions. It soared, diminished, and produced other timbral effects. Meanwhile, two orchestra members, Scott Smallwood and Alan Tarmey, responded to Hahn’s prompts with sounds of their own; the exchange was vigorous, intense, and even emotional. Smallwood blushed briefly, and Tarmey’s orange shirt was imprinted with sweat.
In its sonic effect and the relationship between musician and electronic instrument, there were a lot of similarities with another pioneering event – produced in the early part of the last century (1917), when Russian researcher Leon Theremin created the first electronic instrument, which was named after himself.
To make sound with the Theremin, the musician stood in front of the instrument and moved his or her hands back and forth near two metal antennas, the distance from the antennas determining pitch and volume. The Theremin was the instrument that produced many of the eerie electronic sounds found in the science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s.
Whether they intend to or not, and whether or not all of the group’s members know this or not, one of PLOrk’s most important functions may be its connections with ancient means of making music. As the musicians of the ensemble were practicing with their state-of-the-art laptops and six-channel hemispherical speakers and control devices, they shared space with instruments that, at one time, were also considered high tech and innovative.
Sharing the room with the laptops and other gadgets were technologies such as the acoustic and electronic piano, the Hammond organ, and the synthesizer, all of which, if they could have, would have regarded the laptop orchestra’s instruments with a mixture of pride and trepidation.
Even the musical staves emblazoned on blackboards in the rehearsal room were indications that technology moves on. Some of the compositions, including the percussion scores tha the quartet So Percussion and Hussain will use, are written in the traditional manner, but other scores and improvisations that come from the composition are written in graphic script and computer code.
The speakers, Trueman says, are designed to diffuse the sound in the same manner as an acoustic instrument. One of his goals as a researcher, he says, is to develop ways for electronic musicians to produce sound that is natural as possible. "The idea here is that the person has their own sound source, more like a musical instrument than a computer. Part of the beauty of it is that you have all these independent sound sources mixing together in the room."
The creative process unfolds in two ways: The composers bring data and programs to the PLOrk members, upload music or software into their computers, and then teach them to play the compositions. In the case of composers Ge Wang and Smallwood, the compositions and improvisations are created during the performance, as they input code simultaneously that change and evolve the sound as it is played.
One of the fascinating comparisons Lansky makes with PLOrk was the Indonesian gamelan. When Wang demonstrated the properties of ChucK, he wrote a demonstration code that created on his computer the sound of a gamelan orchestra.
ChucK, says Wang, is different from earlier programming languages created for making music because it takes into account the relationship between the musician, the music, and the properties of time in music. "You can represent anything you want in most languages. You can see what is going on, but you don’t necessarily know when. There are times when you want to be able to control time. You want to say, `I want this to happen exactly now,’ or `I want to make this happen at this time.’ ChucK gives you one extra step. It gives you control over time."
It is indeed true that history will determine the importance of the laptop orchestra in the history of electronic music, but the presence of PLOrk, and its unveiling, is just the latest event in a timeline that has established Princeton as one of the most important sites in the convergence of music and electronics.
Alec Magoun, executive director of the David Sarnoff Library, says there are many connections between this area and electronic music. It was the RCA Corporation, started, of course, by Sarnoff, that created the first electronic synthesizer. And it was Milton Babbitt, the Princeton composer, professor, and founder of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, also funded by RCA, who was the first composer to write specifically for the synthesizer.
"The most important part of RCA’s contribution was the electronic music synthesizer in the 1950s," Magoun says. "This was the first electronic synthesizer to use binary sequencing – it was not totally digital, but using the technology they had at the time, it was state of the art."
The company, with Babbitt at the musical helm of the effort, had begun developing the synthesizer, ironically, because the company wanted to save money at its RCA Victor Records division. "If they could get an instrument that could reproduce sounds like an orchestra, they could save a lot of money in labor costs," Magoun says.
The synthesizer, at least in its early years, was too labor-intensive for that. But composers such as Babbitt loved the instrument. "He liked having full control of his output – no musicians talking back to him," Magoun says.
To go with the six-degrees-of-separation theme of Magoun’s history, he points out that RCA in 1929 bought the rights to the Theremin from its inventor. "This was right at the point where the idea of a home electronic musical instrument fit in with David Sarnoff’s general scheme for a multimedia corporation – NBC Radio, Victor talking machines, sheet music, RKO, talking pictures. He knew that people would eventually want to make their own music with electronics, and he wanted to plug into the concept of the proximity of the body with electronics as a synthesizer. The combination of the body with the Theremin was the earliest type of synthesizer."
There is a third connection between Princeton and electronic music’s pioneers, says Magoun. Robert Moog, the first musician/technologist to popularize the synthesizer, helped change popular and classical music by making the instrument attractive to keyboardists. He developed his concepts at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio.
Moog, who died in August, 2005, was a young researcher at the lab in the 1950s and ’60s when Babbitt was the lab’s director. When he began making electronic instruments in 1961, the first ones he sold were his versions of the Theremin.
Pauline Oliveros is another one of the composers whose work will be featured at the April 4 concert. Oliveros is universally thought of as being one of the most innovative composers in contemporary and improvised music. An accordionist by trade, she has been involved in the convergence of technology, sound, and human interaction for half a century.
With PLOrk, Oliveros is performing a piece through which the laptop orchestra gets sound directly from Oliveros’s accordion. "I feed my instrument directly into a computer. Then a series of delays and modulators transform the sound, and it will be further transformed as it is sent from my computer to the 15 laptops and treated in various ways."
Oliveros, who with her Deep Listening Band has collaborated with a vast array of innovative musicians, including Sonic Youth, as well as in settings with Afro-Brazilian capoeiristas and Central and East Asian throat singers, believes the laptop orchestra "represents a real step into the 21st century. Using the technology as it has evolved to this point it is only going to go much further. There will be more sophistication in terms of how we access the power of computers, and it will also raise the bar on musicianship."
When Oliveros started working with technology, the best feedback available to her was the tape recorder. Now, she says, the computer technology available to her and other musicians has greatly changed the equation. "The crucial problem right now is developing access, on the part of the performer, to the creative part of the machine. With ChucK, the ability to change things on the fly is really important. But that is just one kind of access into the computer. We need more sophisticated access.
"The mouse and the keyboard are not enough. What if you could just think something and it would happen? That will be one of the great questions of the 21st century. There might come about a way of transmission from one person to another, which, after all. is what a (computer) network is about. We need to come up with ways of transmitting data from one to a large group of people or even one to one."
What Trueman and Cook and their collaborators have done, says Oliveros, has in a small way begun to break into new ways of creating music. "The future is going to be quite amazing, and in many different ways, ways we haven’t even begun to suspect."
Princeton Laptop Orchestra, Tuesday, April 4, 8 p.m., Richardson Auditorium. Premiere of a new ensemble of musicians who produce music via laptop computers. Guest performances by tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, accordion legend Pauline Oliveros, and the avant-garde New York percussion quartet So Percussion. $10; $6 students. 609-258-5000.
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