An Orchestra of Laptops

Mar 9, 2012

Jesse Allison and Nick Hwang play in the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana. (WRKF/Tegan Wendland)

Louisiana State University's School of Music and Center for Computation and Technology have teamed up to form a "laptop orchestra."

They perform March 10 at the Manship Theatre

LSU is also hosting the first ever Symposium on Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras (SLEO) April 15-17. There will be concerts at the LSU Recital hall at 7:30 on the 16th and 17th, as well as the Varsity Theatre later in the evening.

WRKF's Tegan Wendland talked with Professor Jesse Allison and student Nick Hwang about what it means to play a concert with laptops. 

WENDLAND: First of all can you tell me how this works?

ALLISON: So the laptop orchestra plays and the whole concert, but the second half of the concert is the "traditional" orchestra piece, where we perform for the audience, but the first half of the concert, basically the perception half - basically anybody with a web-enabled mobile device will be able to come, like your cell phone or your iPad or your laptop, and you'd be able to perform. You'd basically just go to a webpage and it would give you an instrument and then you would play that instrument.

WENDLAND: So it's fully interactive...

ALLISON: Completely interactive.

WENDLAND: At any point during the show or just for those certain sections?

ALLISON: There are five sections out of this first half that the audience participates in. In some of the sections it's only the audience that's generating all of the music, and then in other ones the laptop ensemble is performing and the audience is performing along with them.

WENDLAND: Could you tell me more the laptop orchestra, what exactly you're doing and how it works?

ALLISON: Well, it's a lot of fun. Basically all of the members of the laptop ensemble make our own instruments out of electronics, things that are off the shelves, things that we develop ourselves, software, and then we compose for it and then we perform for it. Some things are improve, some things are really strictly composed, and everything is extremely experimental.

WENDLAND: And Nick, how did you get involved?

HWANG: I took a class a few years ago and at the end of the class the professor and the rest of the students thought it would be really cool to start an ensemble based out of laptops, it was a really new idea at the time and we thought we should be one of the first schools in this area to do that.

WENDLAND: What would you guys say to someone who says your work wasn't real music because you don't use any traditional instruments? Does anyone ever say that? What's your response?

ALLISON: Oh yeah. Some people say it. Basically, the way I look at it, its ‘sound art.' Whether you want to look at it as music or not, it is art using sound and I like to think of it as music. If you think back, some of the earliest instruments are percussion instruments - you take something and you bang on it and you like the sound so you do it again. And that's what we do here, we take a look at all of the things that we can bang on, all of our electronics and computers, and see what sounds they can make and what kind of music can come from that, and it's fun.

WENDLAND: Can you give us a little sample of what we might here at the show?

ALLISON: Yeah, absolutely. So in the first half there's a section that uses a marimba, and I've got kind of a faux marimba roll here that we can listen to. (plays audio) So this is just a recorded marimba roll and the actual instrument that the ensemble uses and that the audience can use is an iPad, which will capture the sound that was played and then is able to pitch bend it, depending on how you tilt the iPad. (demonstrates) Basically, based on that instrument, we have five members of the ensemble playing this and then we have one very good percussionist playing marimba and we've composed a piece called "Convergence" which splits off of the original recorded sound and it's just a piece composed around that theme.

WENDLAND: What strikes me is that there's nothing else like it. You can't just go to a regular orchestra and participate and feel like you're part of it.

ALLISON: Absolutely. And that's kind of the whole point. I think it's something that hasn't been explored much in art, mostly because it's so difficult to pull off, but things are getting easier with the technology that's developed, and it's time to play!

WENDLAND: Well, thanks so much for your time today.

HWANG: Thanks.

ALLISON: Thank you.