Upwardly Mobile: What we talk about when we talk about laptop music
When I was invited by NewMusicBox to write an overview of “laptop music,” my initial instinct was that this would be less an introduction than a requiem. Isn’t the phrase “laptop music” sorta “over”? Well, as it turns out, no. Quite the contrary: More people are making more music with more software than ever on laptops.
In the few days since the publication of “Serial Port: A Brief History of Laptop Music,” I’ve already begun to hear from people, some referenced in the story itself, others simply involved in the culture at large.
The core of the article uses a recent concert by the Kronos Quartet as a kind of emblematic experience of laptop music. Three laptops were involved in the performance: one played by a member of Matmos in that duo’s piece with Kronos at the end of the second set; one employed by Kronos’s sound engineer/designer, Scott Fraser; and one by Walter Kitundu, the composer and instrument maker who performed with Kronos at the end of the first set.
In the article, I noted, “If Matmos’s use of the laptop best epitomized the aural fact of laptop music, Kitundu’s came closer to an audience’s experience of laptop music: you had no idea what he doing.”
Well, to help clarify things significantly, Kitundu sent me an informative email, and he gave me permission to post it:
Just thought I’d demystify my laptop’s role during the Kronos piece at YBCA. I was using software that allowed me to play MP3s with a record on my Phonokora. The digital files were often versions of Kronos’ interpretations of Mingus collages that I’d assembled with turntables. They learned these elements and recorded them using their traditional instruments, and I reused them via the turntable to create some of the atmospheric sound of the piece, and to respond to what they played live during certain sections of the composition. (Mingus 3 or 4 times removed.) The Phonokora now has a USB crossfader… I was interested in mixing the old with the new, strings and bytes, naural/digital—seeing how refiltering ideas repeatedly via the process would affect the outcome. The composition was about memory (of a loved one passed on) and this was a concrete way to examine how memory transforms over time and through experience.
Another person asked me, subsequent to the story’s publication: “I do a lot of my music work on my iMac. My turntable is plugged into it even. Does this still count as ‘laptop music’? I mean, it’s Reason and Live and hopefully soon Reaktor.” (Those last three capitalized words are the names of different music-making software packages.)
That distinction was very much on my mind as I wrote the article. To me it comes down to what I describe in the article as a “continuity of technological experience.” The laptop has allowed people who both make music at home and perform in front of audiences to use the same equipment, and thus it has allowed them to develop a heightened sense of intimacy with their equipment. That’s what uniquely makes the laptop, among various computer-music tools, akin to an instrument.
So, no, an iMac doesn’t count as a laptop just because one makes music on it. But if that single computer becomes one’s primary apparatus, both as a studio unto itself and as a performance tool that one plays in various environments, then it certainly might as well be a laptop.