When I first heard about the Laptop Orchestra at Princeton in 2005, I thought it sounded like a one-off novelty act.
Not any more.
This year, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (or PLOrk) has received a nearly quarter million dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation (same folks who fund the "Genius Grants"). And they were part of an American Composers Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall. They're here to stay, and they may change the way we think about playing and sharing music.
For as long as there has been music, it's been a social activity. I get an existential burr under my saddle when I hear friends of mine talk about "making music" on their computers, and what they're really talking about is spending eight hours in a dark room by themselves, tweaking timings in Garage Band.
The PLOrk folks are on it:
One of the main goals of PLOrk, Trueman says, was to "really reintroduce the social aspect of making music into laptop music."
That quote is from a terrific write-up on PLOrk by Brittany Peterson this week at pcmag.com. And Trueman is Dan Trueman. He and Perry Cook founded the Laptop Orchestra as an undergrad seminar at Princeton three years ago. They immediately ran into problems: how to synchronize an array of laptops, how to blend their sounds with each other, and with acoustic instruments. But these are Princeton folks, so...their problems turned into a series of solutions: new speaker designs, new software, new circuit boards designed specifically for their apps. (See the pcmag story for details.)
For the Carnegie Hall concert, Dan Trueman wrote a piece for 8 laptops with solo hardanger fiddle and orchestra. From Trueman's Carnegie Hall notes:
In this piece, a subset of PLOrk sits in front of the orchestra...sometimes processing the sounds of an orchestra to create gentle harmonies, other times providing a (wirelessly synchronized) warped metronome (inspired by Norwegian dance music, of all things) for the orchestra to follow. The laptop itself is our instrument in this piece; we smack it (and are actually able to control its sound this way!) and drive with the trackpad and keys, sometimes treating it like a glass harmonica, other times like a weighty hand drum.