Scroll Over, Beethoven

Written by Garrett Mitchell Category: Valley News Issue: December 2014
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ASU’s laptop orchestra creates high-tech classics in the Digital Age.

No sheet music. No composer. Only the glistening glare of laptop screens shining on nine obscured faces and melodies conjured by modern technology. This is Arizona State University’s laptop orchestra – LOrkAS – and it asks the question: What is an orchestra in the 21st century?

Self-described as a “problematizing ensemble,” LOrkAS is one of many laptop orchestras around the globe, which use computers and software programs to transmit a gamut of tones. Laptop orchestras have risen in prominence since the turn of the century, and each orchestra – from iterations at Stanford to Oxford – brings its own interpretation of what a laptop orchestra is and what purpose it serves.     

Since 2010, the student-run ASU ensemble has experimented with specialty software-equipped laptops to create complicated compositions. Graduate student Garrett Johnson, who is completing his M.A. thesis in musicology at ASU, is the director of the musical endeavor, which performs in an intimate, immersive space. Audience members, who sit on the floor to soak in the sights and sounds, can amplify a performance with their sounds and movements – in contrast to most other laptop orchestras, which emulate the big orchestra acoustics that resound in wide open spaces and observe the standard performer-audience separation.

“What we’re doing is not entirely new, but it’s our own perspective,” Johnson says. “We’re indebted to other artists, scholars and mentors who’ve come before us and we’re excited to become a part of an ongoing conversation.”

Johnson wants to expand the LOrkAS experience into a multimedia extravaganza. Partnered with collaborators who specialize in stage design, multichannel sound and music composition, he has cultivated a creative collective to craft an all-encompassing spectacle. This involves multiple meetings each week with three distinct groups – the sound, stage and musical teams.

Compared to a traditional orchestra, with its array of instruments like trumpets and violins, a laptop orchestra performance  can be sensually jarring, as the sounds may not match the diminished physicality before the audience’s eyes.

“People understand the relationship between instruments, like the cello, and the performer,” Johnson says. “If a physical performance doesn’t mirror what the audience is hearing, it creates a problem with their perception. People may think you’re checking your email if the sound doesn’t reflect what’s going on.”

The group composes original pieces on laptops via various music-making software programs. Reactive “instruments” (programs) with the capability to express error or inconsistencies make the use of an average MacBook seem no different than playing and tuning a traditional instrument. Instrument sounds are created through manipulating the laptop’s interface to react in a manner similar to how a Wii remote would be used to prompt sounds in a video game. It can take months to readapt or calibrate an average laptop, so there is a margin of error that can shape the trajectory of a performance. “It can often be intimidating to design an expressive instrument like that,” Johnson adds.

One LOrkAS compositon uses the laptop’s cameras and color recognition to note the placement of the musician’s palm or an object they’re holding. Whenever the musician’s arm moves – in one swift swoop or jagged spurts – synthetic sound radiates from the machine, varying depending on the type of movement and the color recognition by the computer. Subtle interactions with the calibrated lens can greatly affect what sounds are emitted and alter a performance, making a show distinguishable from the previous one.

Environment comes into play as well. Depending on the technical capabilities of a venue, members of the orchestra often improvise with whatever means are available in the space. The group practices inside the university’s Matthews Center iStage, an inviting studio that sends spectators into a state of ultra-awareness as the group performs swallowed in darkness, solely illuminated by the soothing, low-resolution geometric projections on the floor. Skeleton-like wooden tripods flank the simple, sprawling space.

“It’s a new performance every time as we continue to evolve and experiment,” Johnson says. “Most people don’t know what to expect but can feel welcomed by the space or art that’s taking place. We’re delighted that people want to experiment with us.”

See LOrkAS perform at 7:30 p.m., December 10 at Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St., Mesa, 480-664-6500.
For more information on LOrkAS, visit lorkas.org.