Keyboardist is a general term in classical music. It's usually someone who is comfortable performing on harpsichord, celesta, even clavichord along with, of course, the piano. But increasingly lately it's come to mean something entirely different: turning a laptop computer into a musical instrument.
Laptops -- largely Apple computers -- have long been used to process sound and integrate synthesized music with acoustic instruments. But they have become instruments themselves, whether as an enhanced DJ tool or a programmable digital instrument.
Throughout this development in the 1990s and 2000s, the laptop has primarily been "played" or used by one person, such as a DJ, a composer or a violinist, or at the very least been the only one in an ensemble or show. But in the past 10 years or so, laptop keyboard players have started to band together in, well, bands.
"Many universities and independent groups have formed ensembles of five to 20 performers, using laptops as instruments," says Carnegie Mellon University's Roger Dannenberg, associate research professor of computer science, music and art. "Often, composers make use of the many sensors on modern laptops: microphones, cameras, accelerometers, mice, keys and sometimes extras plugged in via USB or MIDI ports."
Tonight the national laptop orchestra community will take the next step, with entire orchestras in different locations performing together over the Internet. A group at CMU will join with others at Louisiana State University, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, the University of Colorado, the University of Huddersfield in England, and Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, all with Mr. Dannenberg conducting from Baton Rouge, La.
"We'll use the Internet to exchange live audio and video," he says. "We will also create an interface to allow me to communicate with all the players at once. I will be giving high-level directions, such as to play long tones, angular melodies, diatonic scales, etc., but the ensembles will use a lot of improvisation to interpret my directions."
He's calling it a Federation of Laptop Orchestras, and it's all a part of another important development in the laptop composing/performing field: its first conference. The Symposium on Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras takes place this week at LSU. It's billed as "an international workshop on music performance for laptops and mobile devices."
At 8:30 p.m. at CMU's University Center's McConomy Auditorium, a CMU computer cadre will perform a concert that will be sent along with the others to a command center in Baton Rouge and then returned in collective sound mass played over speakers to audience members. Orchestras and audiences in each location will hear and respond to the other performances in the 15-minute piece/jam.
"The individual orchestras have a fair amount of autonomy even though they have a common high-level control and purpose," he says. "And each concert will be a slightly different experience," due to time delays. Students in Mr. Dannenberg's Computer Music Systems and Information course built the software for the project.
Music needs not justify itself, but Mr. Dannenberg hopes the feat will address some artistic purposes.
"Creating interaction at great distances is at least mind-bending, and I hope the idea that people all over the world can play music together will resonate with the audience," he says.
"The medium is very strange. There are significant time delays, no eye contact, collective improvisation among groups rather than individuals, and laptops as instruments. Art is often inspired by imposing interesting problems and constraints. I feel confident this great experiment will yield something memorable."