Friday, November 16, 2007

Laptop orchestras. You read that right.

The University of York has been getting publicity lately for its Worldscape Laptop Orchestra, currently billed as the world's largest, though not the first. Others include the Moscow Laptop Cyber Orchestra and Princeton's PLOrk. Create Digital Music has a good summary. [There doesn't seem to be a good permalink for the Worldscape site yet -- I'll have to remember to fix the link when there is one][I've updated the link from York Music's home page to the press release for Worldscape. They still don't seem to have their own page, which leads me to wonder if they're still around].

So just what is a laptop orchestra? A bunch of people clicking "play" on some mp3 files and listening to the results? Not at all. Worldscape and its cousins are bona fide orchestras, making live music, often collaborating with more traditional instrumentalists and at least in the case of Worldscape, requiring a conductor. There is also at least one club sponsoring open jam sessions where anyone can show up with their gear, plug in and play.

The key here is the interactive element. An instrument in a laptop orchestra isn't just spewing out pre-programmed bits. It's responding to the musician's input, whether through specialized controllers, gestures grabbed by a video camera, or whatever else. As with any other orchestra, the musicians respond to each other, to the conductor (if any) and to the audience. The result is a genuinely live musical performance.

One telling detail: How do you record a laptop orchestra? You might think you'd just capture the digitized sounds the laptops are producing and mix them down. That's certainly possible, but if you want to capture the experience, it's better just to put mics in the house and record what the audience is hearing.

That's not to say you couldn't do the same thing online. I've heard of small-scale live musical collaborations over the net (though I can't remember where). I suspect, however, that keeping an orchestra of fifty in sync online is going to be a problem. I doubt you could just put everyone on one big Skype conference call, but if it's been done on that scale I'd be glad to be proved wrong.

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