Trading tablets for trumpets, computers for clarinets, and six-sided speakers for strings, Princeton University has ignored classic music’s outstanding mantra – that ‘if it’s not baroque, don’t fix it’ – and has set up its very own Laptop Orchestra.
Doing away with the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, players are creating their own symphonies. As the orchestra’s Co-Director, Jeff Snyder, explains: “The students in the ensemble are both musicians and programmers. Some of them are basically more musicians and some of them are really coming from a programmer background. And they are trying their hand at the other side.”
Mixing Macs and cables with sax and violins, it is this exchange between the orthodox and the electronic which has excited students most. For musician Hana Shin, the leap of faith has proved worthwhile: “It makes you look at music in a different way. When I was first involved in it, honestly, I thought it was the weirdest thing. It was completely different from music as I knew it before as a classical jazz pianist.”
For fellow student Travis Henry, they are breaking important musical boundaries: “What we are doing we are exploring sounds that really cannot be heard in the natural world, or we are taking natural sounds and changing them in ways you really can’t imagine without hearing.”
Producing the kind of compositions that could seamlessly soundtrack a sci-fi movie, students know that, given the speed of change in music technology, their movements could be out of date in a few years. As conductor, Dafna Naphtali, notes:
“We are not going to have laptops that work in exactly the same way in twenty-years. So, whilst Mozart’s music is able to be played hundreds of years later, I think it will be different for us given we will see big, big changes in how we play computer music. I think these instruments are still in flux.”
Unsurprisingly, whilst some purists have found Princeton’s innovative sounds too hot to Handel, others have been inspired to pick up their laptops, with new electronic orchestras already emerging at Stanford and Virginia Tech universities.