by / December 12th, 2011 /

Top Story: Interview: The Dublin Laptop Orchestra’s Alex Dowling

The Dublin Laptop Orchestra was founded by Alex Dowling and Dan Trueman early 2011 along with Rachel Ní Chuinn, David Collier and Jenn Kirby. The orchestra “make music with lots of laptops, hands, golf controllers, a wireless router, and anyone that plays.. anything.” Their aim is “to bring some theatricality and ‘physical presence’ into electronic music performance” with a focus on folk music.

Anna Murray quizzed Alex Dowling about the orchestra’s foundation and future plans.

How did you come to set up the Dublin Laptop Orchestra?

The US composer/fiddler/madman Dan Trueman was over in Ireland for the year and happened to be teaching a class at Trinity where I was studying at the time. He’s already set up a HUGE laptop orchestra at Princeton University called PLOrk so he knew exactly what we’d need to do to make it happen. I think he actually suggested a ‘lork’ for Dublin in his very first class and things just went from there.

Thankfully we got funding from the Arts Council’s Deis fund for the traditional arts for a collaboration with the fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh so this made it much easier to get things going.

What was the intention behind it?

The intention was to set up a group that could perform electronic music using the same physicality and interaction you get with acoustic instruments. Something where we could control sounds generated from laptops in a meaningful way. Having humans control sound in a live context allows for all the subtle nuances and ‘mistakes’ that naturally occur when playing a violin or guitar for example.

Do you think you’ve been successful at achieving that so far?

Yeah, I think it’s been going well, people seem to be really into it. Or maybe they’re just smiling at us because they think we’re on a day out from the home. Who knows – I guess there’s a certain novelty factor that draws people in but hopefully there’s some substance there to back it up as well.

How is it different to a standard laptop/electronic performance?

Well I think it’s quite different to a standard laptop performance as there’s a fair bit of interaction between players. Usually doing stuff with laptops is pretty solitary, and there doesn’t tend to be much improvisation although I’m sure people would debate that. I’m always looking for the same energy you get when people perform together on acoustic instruments, it’s a feeling that’s quite different from the usual static screen-gazing that you get when computers are involved.

Is the performative/theatrical side of music very important to you and the orchestra?

Yes the performative side of music is important to me personally as I’m a bit addicted to playing instruments. I started playing trad fiddle recently and I find the urge to play just hits me and I literally have to go and pick it up…maybe I have a problem! Unfortunately I never get a sudden need to type some numbers into a computer and hit enter. There’s just no satisfaction in that and so, though you don’t need to physically perform things to create good music, it’s something I feel is pretty inherent to the ‘spirit’, or whatever you want to call it, of live music. Just because technology makes something technically unnecessary doesn’t immediately justify removing it. Another thing that’s great about live music is that it can never be the same twice and the performers really need to have some skill. This is all part of the experience that I find lacking when audio files are played back or pre-made loops are triggered.

Any ensemble must be communicating musically and otherwise all the time…how do you achieve that level of communication with a laptop?

There’s a few different ways for communication to happen. You can have the very traditional orchestra setup where someone actually conducts the players. I think this is probably the most entertaining to watch. Also, in any performance there will usually be the same eye contact and nodding that any performer would do to signal stuff.

The most technologically advanced (i.e. nerdy) way of communicating is over a wireless network where messages are sent from a server laptop to all the other client laptops. This can be great for syncing rhythmic stuff or allowing one laptop to control what the others are doing.

How does that translate when you have live instruments too?

Live instruments fit really easily into our setup. In fact, I think this is the laptop orchestra’s real strength as getting acoustic instruments to sit comfortably with live electronics has always been a bit of a dilemma. Because we have actual people triggering things and controlling sound in real-time, acoustic performers don’t need click tracks or any of the other awkward things that are often involved. It becomes far easier for the players to interact with the electronics and to get a better balance with sound levels and timbres.

There is a hardly a large repertoire for this kind of ensemble…where do you source your pieces?

So far it has mostly been people in the ‘lork’ (this has become the general term for a laptop orchestra) that have written the pieces. We also play a couple of Dan Trueman’s. It can be fairly difficult to get a lot of material together but we’re getting there. There’s some interesting things like the Symposium for Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras (SLEO 2012) at Louisiana State University where people are getting together and starting to really look at different techniques and setups and bring forward new pieces and ideas. So as more people get into this way of performing music I’m sure a lot more stuff will be written.

Tell us a little about the performances you have done so far.

Most of the pieces leave room for some improvisation and don’t use scores except for graphical stuff that is fairly open to interpretation. There’s one piece by Francis Heery called ‘Spool’ that has a loose structure that we follow and the rest is improvised. In this we use the infamous golf controllers to play around with samples of crotales and create these really eerie textures.

One of the things I’ve written is a software instrument that people play by typing on the laptop keyboard. It creates a tapping sound similar to a dancer on wooden floor and so it works well if a trad fiddler plays with us. The force and speed at which you type on the keyboard affects the loudness and pace of the rhythms allowing a certain amount of expressiveness which hopefully makes the laptop feel a bit more like a real instrument.

Is DLork interested in exploring alternative concert settings and experiences?

Yeah, we’re very interested in unusual spaces and concert experiences. The ‘Floor It’ show as part of the Fringe festival had an interesting setup in which the audience were all lying on the floor and staring up at the ceiling. We did a piece by David Collier where a virtual lake was projected on the ceiling. Little drops would appear in it when we typed while also triggering drop-like sounds. This was very effective as it was an audio-visual piece being created in real-time without any automation, fun to be a part of. We performed at the ‘Sonic Pop-up’ event as part of Dublin Contemporary. This was held in Earlsfort Terrace which has been closed off to the public for many years. Definitely not a standard venue. I also think doing something in a church or a place with similar acoustics would be great, that’s a plan for the future.

What have you got lined up for the Orchestra in the future?

Our next major gig is with the fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and dancer Nic Gareiss at Smock Alley theatre on Sunday December 11th. There’s a whole series of new pieces that have been written for it so I reckon it’ll be our best gig to date. We have a few other things in the pipeline such as a performance with the Crash Ensemble and a collaboration with Yurodny in 2012.

The number of performers (and amount of equipment) in the laptop orchestra will also hopefully continue to grow as I’ve found the size of our group is inversely proportional to the irony of our name. We should hit 10 soon which I think will create a suitably ‘orchestral’ feel in the sense that it will give the flexibility to do most things you might want. The difference with laptops is that they can each make so much sound. An orchestra in laptop terms (like dog years or something) is very different from an acoustic instrument arrangement. I can’t imagine ever needing more than around 10-15 performers for anything we’d want to create… but who knows, maybe collecting laptopists will become an addiction too!