In 2006, during the traditional speech that follows the Last Night of the Proms, the conductor Mark Elder bemoaned the effect that new aircraft baggage restrictions were having on instrument-carrying musicians. Noting that the rules still allowed laptops, he joked: “It seems to me that next year we should all look forward to Concerto for Laptop and Orchestra.”

Many a true word is spoken in jest – and a quick search online would probably have led Elder to Princeton University, where a group of tech-savvy musicians had already gone one better. Co-founded in 2005 by Professors Dan Trueman and Perry Cook, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) was the first serious attempt to put together a computer-only musical ensemble.

For a long time, people have collaborated to create music on computers. But at the start of the 21st century, as personal computing became cheaper, faster and more powerful, single-user music production began to dominate. PLOrk came about with the “aim of creating communities where once again experimentation and music-making could thrive”.

In the six years since, laptop orchestras have proliferated the world over, in both academic and non-academic settings. Later this month, the UK city of Birmingham will host the laptop ensemble-dominated Network Music Festival, while across the Atlantic, the first Symposium of Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras will be held in Louisiana in April.

This does not mean the period has seen a convergence of opinion on what actually constitutes a laptop orchestra. One group’s set-up – and the way it makes music – will differ wildly from the next.

For example, a PLOrk performance typically consists of 15 laptop players sitting on meditation mats, next to six-channel hemispherical amplifiers – made, in some cases, from Ikea salad bowls. These allow both players and the audience to hear the sounds being made directly, instead of having signals fed to a distant PA system. As well as their laptops, the musicians may incorporate any number of other “instruments” from which they sample live: the Birmingham Laptop Ensemble (BiLE), for example, uses anything from “kitchen items, bells and cellos” to “kinetic controllers such as iPhones, Wiimotes, Xbox Kinects”.

What binds this gamut of noise-creation together is programming code, says Jeff Snyder, PLOrk’s associate director: “Generally, each composer writes new code for each piece . . . if the composers are writing new code for their pieces, then they have the ability to make it do exactly what they want, and it opens their horizons for what is possible.”

This might mean allowing players to improvise within certain sonic parameters, or directing them to follow a more traditional musical structure. The possibilities are practically endless, with the route from composition to performance constantly being played with.

“[PLOrk member] Michael Early did a through-composed piece with conventional notation a couple of years ago. Some pieces use hand signals. Others use text messages between performers, visual signs or no conducting at all,” says PLOrk’s Rebecca Fiebrink. Ico Bukvic, director of Virginia Tech’s L2Ork, uses “gesture and choreography, most recently relying upon T’ai Chi” to develop “an entirely new system for delivering relevant score information to performers”.

For the uninitiated, or even for those without a computer science degree, watching a performance can be a bewildering experience. Unlike a conventional orchestra, it can be very hard to see exactly what each player is contributing. And for all the dynamism of the software, the lack of movement on stage can – as Fiebrink puts it – result in “something lost in the communication between performer and audience”.

She is quick, however, to point out that this is not always the case, “whether it’s picking up the laptop and tilting it around, using the motion sensor inside to control the sound, as in Dan Trueman’s Droner, [or] hitting the laptop with the hands, as in Raymond Weitekamp’s G.” Many ensembles also make heavy use of audio-visuals, though Snyder admits: “If it’s just eye candy to compensate for the dreaded ‘are they checking their emails?’ visual impression, it probably shouldn’t be there.”

Yet it would be foolish to dismiss this music on the grounds of appearance. For all the complexity and alien performance style, at the heart of the laptop orchestra movement is both a commitment to experimentation, and an alertness to technological change: two elements that have always driven music to exciting new places. And who’s to say that a networked approach to music making won’t soon remove the distinction between the players on stage and the rest of us in the audience?

Network Music Festival, January 27-29, networkmuscifestival.org

Symposium of Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras, April 15-17, sleo2012.cct.lsu.edu

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