Soundscapes and Ear Cinema with Dr. Allison
By Cody HoldenPosted Mar 14, 2012
This past Saturday, the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana (or LOLs) premiered their latest concert “Perception.” The piece was a radically innovative performance, as it incorporated meaningful audience contributions throughout the entire show. Concert attendees utilized laptops, smartphones, and tablets to respond in real time with notes, images, and even tracked eye contact that ultimately resulted in a unique blurring of the line between performer and audience. As the LOLs prepare for upcoming shows at local venues ranging from the Manship Theatre to the Varsity Theatre, Dig sat down with Composer and LSU Professor Jesse Allison to get a clearer perception of their blend of science with sound.
DIG: So, where did the idea for the LOLs come from?
Jesse Allison: My colleague, Dr. Steve Beck, had been watching the international electronic-acoustic scene and there had been a number of laptop ensembles. Those have been around a while – you know, people getting together and playing with their laptops. But there were two groups at Stanford and Princeton that set up an orchestra and specifically titled it an orchestra because of the connotations of how it functions. The approach was really interesting and different than just getting together and jamming. So the year before I got here, they put together a seminar group and they made instruments and tried to compose for them as a small orchestra. Steve ended up getting a grant to fund setting things up, and they had a great initial season. The second year, when I got here, we went on tour around the Southeast and were really successful. We came back and had a performance at the Manship and the publicity went nuts. There were a lot of people that saw it and saw that it was really good stuff. This year we got another grant to do some more research and it’s going really well.
DIG: How common is it for a university to have something like this?
JA: When we started it was really uncommon but in the past two years its been going like wildfire. Schools of Music are not equipped to look into the future as far as technology is concerned. We’re always comparing our compositions with Beethoven or Bach, and we have a number of different techniques and styles that we champion for years. But technology has been disrupting that for a while. Electronic music has been around for almost 100 years, which is plenty of history to build on. There [are] usually a couple places in every state that are on the cutting edge and pushing things.
DIG: Do you think that technology will change what people imagine when they hear the word “orchestra”?
JA: I don’t know really. There’s so much history in an orchestra that’s going to be there. It will change some of our perceptions of what music is. That’s absolutely already shifted a lot because of film. When you take sounds and you use [them] to represent an image, you can get by with all sorts of stuff that if you put in a concert would scare people. We have a concert series called “Cinema for Ears,” and that’s the draw: It’s sound art.
The way we look at it is that sound is sound and has meaning. If those meanings are pitch and rhythm, then go for it. If its things that we recognize as a truck sound or a crashing sound, then that’s the meaning and you put them together and there’s another meaning. Whether you want to talk about it as music or not is up to you. I call it music, but it’s all “sound art.” That’s our approach.
DIG: How exactly did the idea for “Perception” come about, and how does it relate to the larger projects here?
JA: Well, I’ve done a lot of work in sonic art pieces and interactive art that has sound components. I’ve also done things like physical installations, like Social Structure that you can physically interact with and change the way they sound or look. So, anyway, I ran into this one piece where we needed to do some tricky things to get information to and from components that couldn’t talk to each other but that could talk to the Web. So I ended up making a Web service that each component could access, and I used that to communicate from one thing to another. It was at that point that it struck me that musicians could push an interface for a musical performance out on the Web and have people play together. I ended up writing a grant saying that it could be done and the reason you’d want to do it is that you can share it with anybody. Like at the concert, you just typed in “play” [in your phone] and you got the interface. That’s the point. It’s already spilling into other research areas where people can just walk up to screens or whatever and interact with them. So this last year I did the development, the implementation, and the composition and we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do artistically.’ In PERCEPTION, every interaction tested a different component of the technology. Some were self-automated, some you could draw and submit images, and it worked.
DIG: How does Baton Rouge fit into the electro-acoustic mix?
JA: Well, we have an International Symposium for Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras coming April 15. It’s the first time that anybody has gotten all the ensembles and orchestras to get together and talk and play around, and we’re hosting it. There are a lot of different approaches to what we do, so it’ll be great to get everyone together to talk things over.