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Music for Laptop Ensemble

Nov 11, 2013

Laptop computers, tablets and smart phones have all made it possible to perform regular activities in new ways. 

An upcoming performance at Western Illinois University is bringing that technology to the concert stage.  

Four people sitting in a room, all in front of lap top computers is a common site.  But this isn’t an office or a coffee shop with free WiFi.  This is a musical group - a laptop ensemble.

You're being interpretive with your gestures. But you're still thinking about the musicality that you would if you were playing a regular instrument.
The WIU Laptop Ensemble in rehearsal.
Credit Jonathan Ahl

James Caldwell is a professor of Music Theory and Composition at Western Illinois University, and has spent a number of years as a composer working with electronic music.  His latest work is for Laptop Ensemble: Texurologie 18 – Six Scenes

Caldwell says the work is inspired by modern art. "The kind of all over pattern or color field, painting where there is stuff from edge to edge, not necessarily a central focal point.  I like that kind of cloudy kind of textures, and things kind of feeding off of each other in and out," Caldwell said during a rehearsal of the piece. 

Instead of sheet music, each performer has a series of drawings that serve as instructions. Caldwell created a program that each player in the ensemble has open on a laptop.  Each performer uses a controller – a mouse, trackpad, tablet, iPod or even a Wii remote to draw the shapes in drawings.  

The drawings that serve as sheet music for Texutrologie 18 - Six Scenes and a laptop running the program that allows the performers to make the music.
Credit Jonathan Ahl

And the computer program is set up to reproduce recorded sounds, including a thumb piano, cymbals, snippets of spoken words and marbles rolling around in a box.  Making music by looking at drawings and making movements with an controller is atypical for most musicians.  Adam Stombres is a graduate music student at Western.  His main instrument is saxophone, but says performing this piece still requires a lot.

"I think a lot crosses over from all parts of music, really.  You’re still trying to be musical and expressive and everything, its just that the techinicality of it is different.  You’re not using your fingers in a mechanical motion to replicate things written down," said Stombres.  "You’re being interpretive with your gestures.  But you’re still thinking about the musicality that you would if you were playing a regular instrument."

Texturologie 18 is a very structured piece.  It is consisted of six scenes, each 90 seconds long.  The computer program has a timer so performers know exactly were they are, and it automatically makes changes in the sounds from scene to scene to follow Caldwell’s vision for the piece.  But within that structure is a lot of freedom. 

Paul Paccione is a fellow composer and faculty member in WIU’s school of music.  He says that combination of structure and freedom and the nuances of electronic music is actually a natural progression in the world of classical music.  " (Claude) Debussy said he wanted his music to sound like it was improvised, but it wasn’t.  You try to aim for that when you compose, to make it sound like its not written down, but it is.  But here, there are so many variants, each time we’ll have a different in terms of instrumentation, we set a broad outline," said Paccione.

"I’m finding in rehearsals  that something happens that I wasn’t quite expecting, and I kind of burst out a couple of times, ‘That’s cool! I like that.’ So I hope that anybody listening to it will find some moments that seem really exciting and interesting and draw them in," said Caldwell.

The laptop ensemble will perform James Caldwell’s Texturologie 18: Six Scenes on Wednesday, November 13th night at 7:30pm at the COFAC recital hall on the WIU campus.