- Associated Press - Sunday, December 7, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - More cables are on stage than performers at a LOUi concert.

Whether clicking on a mouse pad, typing on a keyboard, rocking an instrument or using “percussion toys,” the University of Iowa’s laptop musicians consider their ensemble to be just like any other, except for one key difference: their instruments.

You might hear a guitar or drums or piano, but there’s no guarantee you’ll see them on stage.

“We are making music with laptops,” said University of Iowa Laptop Orchestra research assistant Jason Palamara.

Started earlier this year, the ensemble is one of about a dozen nationally, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (http://icp-c.com/12plDi8 ) reported.

UI’s Laptop Orchestra, which goes by the name LOUi, has 10 official members who also compose works for the ensemble.

During a performance, the musicians trigger certain sounds and events with their laptops. To heighten the connection between keystroke and sound, an omnidirectional hemisphere speaker - which looks more akin to R2-D2’s head - sits next to each musician on stage.

“We use electronic interfaces that generate sound in real time,” Laptop Orchestra director David Gompper said.

Those sounds come from a library of acoustic instruments as well as more unconventional noises, such as ambient outdoor sounds or the musicians’ own voices.

UI percussion graduate student Andy Thierauf said cardboard boxes, flower pots, pipes and other knickknacks make up what Gompper calls “percussion toys.”

“We have this collection of sounds that we can use to manipulate in various ways,” Thierauf said. “We can slow them down to make them really low or speed them up, make them go in reverse.”

A lot of concentration is required on stage, said Jonathan Wilson, a member of the ensemble.

“Even if you think that we’re not musically involved with what’s going on, I mean, there’s a lot more going on in the background,” he said.

Those “background” activities during a performance could include real-time coding or troubleshooting computer failures while never losing an ear for the music.

“We’re not removing the process of music at all. We’re just transforming the medium in the way it’s expressed,” Wilson said.

Computer programming languages such as ChucK and Max/MSP allow the ensemble to create loops and a “rich tapestry of sounds,” Thierauf said.

“Anyone can push buttons on a computer,” Thierauf said. “. But really listening to the sound that’s coming out and really being expressive with that sound is, I think, that’s what’s going to make the Laptop Orchestra really interesting for the audience.”

Adding a level of showmanship is something the orchestra is working on, Palamara said.

“The whole idea behind (laptop orchestras) is that the composers actually are on the forefront of the performance themselves,” Palamara said.

Unlike a modern symphony orchestra, most members of the Laptop Orchestra compose the group’s music instead of just performing it.

Gompper said there’s a closer connection between the composer and the musician in the Laptop Orchestra, because they’re essentially the same person.

“(A piece) can change on the fly based on circumstances that someone thought of something and they heard something and say, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ And they can just do it right then and there, where it’s harder for a big symphony orchestra to make those changes,” Gompper said.

Each composer in the ensemble first has to invent a way to make music on the laptop, such as writing the code, and then he also has to write the music itself, Palamara said.

When composing a new piece, Palamara said he starts with sounds that are identifiable, such as his dog. Some familiarity helps the audience follow along, he says.

“(We) start with no mystery, and then we build mystery out of it,” Palamara said.

The ensemble so far is performing only pieces written by its members.

“Modern symphony orchestras rarely play new music; whereas, there are no old laptop pieces. Mozart didn’t write for laptop,” Palamara said.

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

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