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Tuesday 28 June 2011

Concert Review: RCM LOrk

Last night, I went to see the Royal College of Music Laptop Orchestra perform in their institution's main hall. I found out about the concert at the last minute because a friend spotted it on twitter. Until yesterday, I didn't even know there was a LOrk in in London!

The audience was quite small and out numbered by the performers. There were 6 people on stage and one guy working at a mixing desk, who got up to play piano for one of the pieces. The programme was quite short, with 5 pieces on it. They started with Drone by Dan Trueman, which was the first ever LOrk composition, according to the printed programme. They walked in from the back, carrying laptops and playing from the internal speakers. The tilt of the laptop changes the sound. They then walked around the space, making this drone. It worked well as an introduction and had a good performative element, but I find this piece disturbing in general because it pains me slightly whenever I see anyone shake a laptop. This kind of treatment leads disks to die. Somebody should port this piece to PD and run it via RjDj on an iPhone.

The next piece they played was Something Completely Different by Charles Mauleverer. It was quite short and was made up of clips from Monty Python. Somebody from the ensemble explained that they were playing YouTube videos directly and using the number keys to skip around in the videos and stutter and glitch in that way. This piece was played through two large monitors on the stage. Because all the clips are in the vocal range, using only two speakers made it a bit muddy. Also, the lack of processing the sounds in any meaningful way could become an issue, but the piece was quite short and therefore mostly avoided the limitations of it's simple implementation.

Then, alas, there was a few minutes pause for technical issues and a member of the group stood up and gave a short talk about what was going on in the pieces played so far.

After they got everything going again, they played Synchronicity by Ellis Pecen, which was very well done. The players were given already processed sounds of a guitar and were playing and possibly modifying those further. The programme notes said it used instrumental sounds "process[ed] to such a degree that it would be difficult to discern the original instrument and the listener would ... perceive" the source materials only as "a source of sound." As such it was acousmatic in it's construction and it's ideals but the result was a nice drone/ambient piece. After a few minutes, the sound guy got up and joined the ensemble to play some ambient piano sounds. The result was a piece outside of the normal LOrk genre (as fas as one can be said to exist) and was extremely musical.

Spirala by David Rees, the next piece on the programme, was supposed to have a projected element, but the projector crashed just as the piece was about to start. The piece was apparently built in flash and involved the players turning some sort of crank, by drawing circles on their trackpads. the sounds it made (and perhaps the mental image of crank-turning) lead me to think of a jack in the box. The programme says the piece is online, but I'm getting a 404 on it, alas.

The last piece was Sisal Red by Tim Yates. It relied on network communication, making groups of three laptops into "distributed instruments." The piece didn't seem to match it's programme notes, however, as there only seemed to be four people actually playing laptops. One of the players was on a keyboard controller and another one was playing the gong with a beater and a microphone as if it were Mikrophonie by Stockhausen. This piece used 4 channels of sound, with the two monitors on stage and the two behind the audience. It seemed to fill up the hall as if were were swimming in sound. I'm not sure what sounds were computer generated and what were from the gong or other sources, but I had the impression that the gong sound was swaying around us and was a very strong part of the piece. It certainly harkened back to the practice of putting instruments with electronics and also seemed to be an expansion of the normal LOrk genre. The result was very musical.

According to the programme, this is the only LOrk situated at a conservatory rather than a university. The players were all post graduates, which is also a break with the normal American practice of undergraduate ensembles. All of the pieces except the first one were written by ensemble members. As is the case with most other LOrks, the composer also supplied the "instrument," so all the players were running particular programmes as specified by (or written by) the composer. Aside from the first piece, there were no gestural controllers present.

I think putting a LOrk into a conservatory is an especially good idea. This will create LOrks that will concentrate heavily on performance practice. In their piece Something Completely Different, they completely de-emphasised the technology and created something that was almost purely performative. However, they obviously still embrace the technical, not only through their choice of medium, but in pieces such as Spirala which required the composer to code in flash.

I was really impressed by the concert overall and especially their musicality and hope they get larger audiences at their future gigs, as they certainly deserve them.

By the way, if you're in a LOrk and have not done so already, there is a mailing list for LOrks, Laptop Bands, Laptop Ensembles and any group computer performance: LiGroCoP, which you should join. Please use it to announce your gigs! Also, BiLE will be using it to make announcements regarding our Network Music Festival, which will happen early next year and will have some open calls.

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