Princeton: PLOrk and Mindy

PLOrk could be the name of a new planet, a sitcom, or the newest catch phrase of America’s youth. Instead, it’s actually shorthand for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, an ensemble of 15 laptops making music together in real time at Princeton University. The group is only in its infancy, this being the first year of the experiment, but they’ve made innovative strides. Last September, they began as a freshman seminar in computer music; in May, they took the stage as a performing ensemble. You can judge this book by its cover—PLOrk is just as cool as the name, as proven by their final concert at Princeton early this month.

They set up camp for the concert in Princeton’s Chancellor Green Rotunda, an octagon-shaped library with a circular upstairs deck. The laptops were situated upstairs while the audience sat below looking up or lounging on the floor with provided Pilates mats. Was this a concert or nap time? The pre-concert music featured the kind of sounds you’d hear at a planetarium, the light shimmering of stars and planets. Scott Smallwood, composer and the-guy-running-around-with-equipment, was the captain of this ship, pulling the audience out of their daily routine and preparing them to experience what might be thought of as other-worldly sounds.

Only partially coming down to Earth, the first piece, Orbits, allowed the laptops to connect to a remote server offering the chillingly urgent speech of air traffic controllers. The laptops controlled the amount of static and the loudness of the sounds, with other atmospheric noise in the background. As the sounds progressed, two of the five laptop players began making sounds by bowing an electric cymbal. Further on, more sounds were added as other players took mallets to metal bowls. It all faded away to the lonely sound of one air traffic controller in empty space.

CliX, by doctoral candidate and TA for the computer music seminar Ge Wang, followed. Each key on the laptop keyboard was programmed to make a clicking-type sound and the players typed away at racing speeds. Wang conducted the piece, asking for high and low pitched clicks by the level of his hand, and divided up the group at times to have multiple grooves going at once. He pointed all across the ensemble for a wave effect, the musical equivalent of cheering baseball fans. The clicks were like raindrops on a windshield during a downpour and the piece was just as energetic as a windy storm.

With young adults as composers, one would expect to hear a bit of the electronic generation rub off on the music. Chris Douthitt’s music, Piece for Plucked Strings and Bells (sort of) for Three Laptops and One Performer, made good use of electronica’s dense percussion beats and chill chords. It surprised me to find out after the concert that the plucked string sound was not a live performer, but a computer-made sound created with the help of the distinguished composer and computer music faculty member, Paul Lansky. It sounded like an acoustic instrument with the whimsical quality of a live musician. Mumble, by one-time NewMusicBox associate editor Nathan Michel, seemed also inspired by modern popular music with beautiful chords and clouds of twinkling stars.

Faculty member and electronic music queen Pauline Oliveros also “intended” to write a piece for the group, a piece called Murphy Mixup: Murphy Intends. With composer Zevin Polzin, she made a musical version of the Murphy Device from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab. The device itself is a conveyor belt carrying 9000 black balls over the top of a wall, the balls falling into a Gaussian distribution, a bell-curve. However, it’s been proven with the Murphy Device that people mentally intending to influence the curve actually could alter it without any physical connection—only intention. Oliveros’s musical version is mostly pre-programmed in the software so the ensemble doesn’t actually have to do much during the piece except give mental attention to the sounds coming out of their specific computer. A bunch of fun sounds are mathematically happening in a Gaussian curve, but if a performer or audience member hears a sound they like, and intends to hear it again, they just might be able to influence that sound to pop up more often. The piece required minimal work from PLOrk but was interesting in both philosophy and sound.

Dan Trueman decided to take matters into his own hands by conducting his piece, not leaving anything to chance. His was one of the few chord-based pieces on the program, and it included live elements such as mouth clicks and heavy breathing by the performers in addition to a seemingly involved and fun process on the laptops.

Shifting the concert into a more interactive and entertaining experience for the laptop musicians, Scott Smallwood and Ge Wang developed a piece with an interface that resembles a video game. Little mice run around a checkered board on the screen, and the players place shapes in their path that create sound as the mice run over them. The mice go from computer to computer, so the players have to sit in anticipation for when the mice will come onto their screen. New mice are made by the conductor on a MIDI keyboard, and after a while, there are a ton of mice running around with the players trying to keep up. This piece was only in demo mode for this concert and Wang said that more planning and organization still need to happen before it’s complete, but it was intriguing to watch and listen to what they had come up with so far.

Staying with the theme of games, Smallwood took inspiration from his childhood memories of the local arcade. This piece was a crazy arrangement of fragments from all your favorite video games—Pac Man, Super Mario Brothers, and much more—with all the bells and whistles of an arcade. It was a lively and entertaining way to end the concert.

This ensemble is original because opens up the possibilities for computer music to be a more human and interactive process, instead of a lonely, isolated one. Cutting-edge equipment helps. The speakers are special-order, spaceship-looking creations that have six separate channels. The sound coming out eminates in all directions, simulating an acoustic instrument with depth rather than the thin sound of one speaker. Also, tiny Mac laptops allow this group to be portable, whereas in the past, it would have been a pain to carry around a desktop computer. Plus, technology has advanced in a way that computers can process sound in real time and servers can handle processing large amounts of information without much of a delay.

All these factors added up in PLOrk founders Dan Trueman and Perry Cook’s minds, and they decided to try out a laptop ensemble and see if it would sink or swim. In this case, it swam. PLOrk holds many possibilities and I look forward to seeing and hearing what the future will bring. If this past concert is any indication, there will be a plenitude of cool, fantastic sounds to be discovered.