One artist on my list is actually a collective of numerous artists. Formed by professors Perry Cook and Dan Trueman, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk for short, has brought a newfound excitement to academic computer music. I have been following PLOrk for a few years now, and have been observing its model proliferate in many cities and universities throughout the world.
The term “computer music” is quite dry, generally conjuring images of HAL 9000 or geeky old men in bowties connecting circuits. “Electronic music” has escaped that fate somewhat, due to its synonymity (in popular parlance) with dance music. This type of music is often seen as somewhat cold, as there is very little performance other than pushing “play.” The addition of performance adds a layer of excitement to the music, both because an audience can see someone performing actions to create sounds, but also because there is an inherent danger of failure in any type of performance.
There are many antecedents to PLOrk, such as the League of Automatic Music Composers (1970s). In contrast to previous (laptop) computer music ensembles, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra is truly orchestral in scope, often employing over a dozen performers. Another unique innovation is their sound system; rather than connecting all members to a central mixing desk, each performer has a semispherical speaker, which radiates in a similar manner to an acoustic instrument. Thus, each performer’s sounds are localized, allowing better monitoring, and allowing a listener to connect individual sounds with an individual performer. The musicians use the mouse and keyboard, but also using built-in tilt and touch sensors to control sound-making computer programs. They also use external controllers, including Wiimotes.
The music played by PLOrk is quite varied, as the group has worked with many different composers. Learning each piece is surely a challenge, as each the soft and/or hardware is always different. However, PLOrk has proved a great vehicle for enabling young non-musicians to participate in music-making. Since the generation of students now in college grew up with computers and video games, learning these types of interfaces come naturally. Musically gratifying results can be achieved much easier than they can by learning a traditional instrument.
Laptop orchestras such as PLOrk are currently based in universities, and somewhat sequestered into their academic world. However, the novelty and the sense of exploration afforded by these groups surely have the potential to be enjoyed by many people. Will laptops orchestras supplant traditional orchestras in the future? It is possible – symphony orchestras are increasingly static and exclusive, while laptop orchestras are innovative and inviting. Future generations, using the computer for everything else, will naturally gravitate towards making music with technology, likely viewing traditional instruments as too limited in capabilities.