What looks like a mechanical engineer’s design — a jumble of black lines and circles of varying sizes — appears on a white computer screen. A note written in small red font in the upper left quadrant provides an instruction: “Extremely sparse — only play after red circle has arrived at point.” True to the message, a small bright-rimmed circle races along one of the lines and lands in a larger dark-lined one. The computer operator then takes the cursor arrow and clicks on it. A burst of sound swells and vibrates.
Another computer screen shows a variation of the design, yet the message is the same. Similarly, as the red circle enters the black one, the musician clicks the arrow, but a different sound erupts. This pattern of lines and traveling circles and ensuing sounds is replicated around the room. And while it appears disconnected, it is, in fact, highly orchestrated.
The activity is a rehearsal of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk, a pioneering musical ensemble that performs Wednesday, April 24, at Taplin Hall on the university campus and hosts an open house for the community on Friday, May 17.
PLOrk, founded in 2005 by composers and Princeton University faculty members Dan Trueman and Perry Cook, is the 21st-century update of the traditional symphonic orchestra model (conductor before a semicircle of musicians). The instruments of choice here are laptops and custom-designed hemisphere speakers: a silver crown of six conjoined car speakers on a bass woofer. The “hemis,” as the speakers are called, produce sounds similar to those generated by traditional orchestral instruments (rather than the flat and splattering application). The conductor is digitally connected to the performers and provides both physical and electronic directions.
According to Konrad Kaczmarek, who serves as one of the directors (a type of concertmaster) for the upcoming concert, computers can generate tones that Western music listeners expect when listening to what is generally accepted as music. Or the arrangement of sounds may be unusual and eschew pitch or tone. This fact presents a range of opportunities for new expression as well as new approaches to creating compositions.
That is the case found in New York City composer Ryan Carter’s piece, “Trying to Connect.” The musical composition is written in lines and circles. Instead of a score, Kaczmarek refers to it as a script. It was written as a software program that was downloaded onto each musician’s computer. As a way to warm up, the musicians checked the levels of several of the piece’s tonal elements: tones, chords, bells. When the conductor — or whichever musician decides to lead — starts the piece, each musician clicks the program and parts of the script randomly appear on each player’s screen.
Despite the randomness, the work is organized such that the musical piece — in sections and as a whole — will have a consistent effect and duration (a point that was experienced during a recent rehearsal). The realization that the serenely engaging piece may never be heard in the same manner twice is a source of wonder.
When Kaczmarek started the rehearsal in the downstairs performing space of Princeton University’s Woolworth Center, he sat before the 10 musicians arranged in a horseshoe. Each player balanced an open computer on his or her knees. Some let their feet play with the hemis set before them. White and black cables connect the speakers and performers. As if a visual metaphor for the process of making music new, keyboards, timpani, and free-standing music staff chalkboards are pushed to the sides.
The score that appears on the screen for the next work takes a different shape and demonstrates how composing and conducting are evolving. New York City composer Dafna Naphtali’s “Audio Chandelier” uses a series of written instructions. The musicians receive a program, but the conductor sends different messages to all, groups of players, or individuals. Kaczmarek sends various commands. “Group 1- Press P” arrives on the screens. “Adam-Solo” results in a single musician rising. The command “Sam-Solo” changes the performer.
A new music piece by New York state composer Ryan Ross Smith shows another approach and the use of another electronic instrument, a tether. The instrument is a digitized sound box activated by the pulling and twisting of body-length cords that stretch from the box and create a specific sound. Kaczmarek silently opens the work by sending out a message that results in several of the musicians stretching the cords, and oscillating sounds flood the hall. That the movements appear choreographic is not unwelcome. Laptop performances incorporate movement, patterns, and an orchestrated look. Kaczmarek brings the point up later and tells the musicians to be mindful of their posture and presence throughout the piece, even if they are only playing laptops.
If a tradition exists for exploring the expanding potential of electronic and digital sound, Princeton University not only follows it, it helped establish it. The university’s music department was involved early — through faculty members and composers Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions — with the 1959 creation of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. The creative center dominated the exploration of electronically produced musical arrangements for two decades. While it attracted major composers and theorists, the center also saw the advancement of new technologies, including computer-generated sounds that began to displace the center’s technology and the partnership between the two universities. In the 1980s Princeton music faculty, including composer Paul Lansky, began focusing on computer-generated music and developed Princeton Sound Lab.
PLOrk continues that music experimentation and notes on its background information that its organizers have been looking to integrate computers in a variety of conventional music making contexts, including chamber ensembles and jam sessions.
Since new approaches need new practitioners, the university found composers to create new work and involved Lansky and American composer Pauline Oliveros.
The orchestra engages new compositions by posting a call for proposals at the start of the academic year. Works are submitted by university faculty, graduate students, and individuals unaffiliated with Princeton. Proposals are reviewed and selected for development. This year many pieces have no university affiliation.
While PLOrk’s equipment and concepts are new, its approach to developing an orchestra is tradition-based. Experienced laptop music performers work with the new, and the university is the recruiting ground. Students from both the music and the computer science programs become the performers, researchers, composers, and software developers who maintain and advance the project.
Coordinators recently found that the project needed an innovation to create more robust presentations and has developed another ensemble called Sideband.
Kaczmarek, who divides his time between Brooklyn and Princeton, has been part of the process of working with PLOrk (and Sideband) and welcomed the opportunity to be involved with the groundbreaking orchestra. Like many young artists he is able to blend traditional and new instruments. “I came to Princeton with a background in improvisation and jazz piano, but I had incorporated live electronics,” he says.
The musician grew up in Gilford, Connecticut, a town outside of New Haven. “My dad was a scientist, but he is a very good jazz guitarist. He works at Yale. He’s a neuroscientist and works on memory and the brain. He’s currently researching the auditory system, so he has brought it back to music. My mother is a visual artist, a painter and sculptor. She has a studio and collaborative gallery space in New Haven. My mother sings. It was a pretty musical household.”
In high school, Kaczmarek says, “I wasn’t sure about studying music. I thought about going into science or medicine. But music was always there. I played in jazz groups and played gigs with quartets. I was busy with music. It’s funny when I look back that I may not have chosen music. That’s what I was passionate about.”
The decision, supported by his family, continues to make sense. “I think that this particular path that I have chosen — because I am not playing just jazz — is engaging a lot of my background. I am creating software systems and experimenting. It makes sense. I get the science side from my father and the art side from my mother.
Kaczmarek did his undergraduate work at Yale and graduated in 2002. He then went to the University of London, Goldsmiths, and received a master’s in composition with a focus on electronic music in 2003. “Then I took about five or six years off, moved to New York, did various freelance jobs teaching music technology, and worked on a number of large scale projects.”
One of those projects included the live electronic processing production for a multimedia adaptation of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” The project was developed by one of his former instructors at Yale, premiered at the State Theater in Prague (where the original opera premiered), and was part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Rather an attempt to reduce the orchestra, Kaczmarek says the work was designed to give the opera “different colors” while maintaining “the fullness of a full orchestra.”
“I was very familiar with Dan Trueman and his work with live electronics,” Kaczmarek says about coming to Princeton in 2008. “It was something that I wanted to get involved with. And I knew a number of fellow composers who were in the program. I knew it was the place that I could continue to experiment with and be affiliated with the university. There are members of the faculty that I really admire. It’s a very small program, and they only accept three or four people a year. It was a good day when I got the acceptance letter.”
Says Kaczmarek: “I think that since technology is part of everyday life, it is part of the everyday musical life, not just in the recording of music but performing in a concert setting.” He points out that a good number of instruments taken for granted today were new technologies and that the symphonic orchestra is still advancing.
PLOrk’s upcoming program includes nine new works, each exploring the innovative and infinite realm of ensemble electronic music. In addition to laptops as instruments, music will be augmented by wireless networks, multichannel speakers, live video for 3D glasses, hacked video game controllers, mobile-based works, and more. Other composers with works in the concert are Anne Hege (Princeton), Daniel Iglesia (New York), Sarah O’Halloran (Virginia), Margaret Schedel (Stony Brook, NY), and Jeff Snyder (Princeton). It will also include an ensemble-created piece inspired by American composer and innovator John Cage’s artistic practice.
“For the performer, the composer, the audience, everything is fresh. You have to compose a bit of instructions on how to understand what is going on musically. There’s kind of a process of music that began in later part of the 20th century where you’re disoriented. Then the light bulb goes off and you say ‘I get it’ and can enjoy the sound world around you,” Kaczmarek says.
Princeton University Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall, Princeton University. Wednesday, April 24, 7:30 p.m. Free. PLOrk open house, Friday, May 17, Woolworth Center, Princeton University. Free. www.princeton.edu/music or 609-258-6024.