Oxford’s most exciting new musical project isn’t a hip young band like Foals or a new side-project from Radiohead. In fact, it’s a team of classically trained musicians from the Faculty of Music — who just happen to turn to laptops as their instrument of choice. We caught up with Andrew Watts, one of the members of the ensemble, to find out more.
What is OxLOrk?
We’re the University of Oxford's Laptop Orchestra: an ensemble of musicians that performs live electronic and electroacoustic music. As performers we control music digitally — in real time, with laptops, dance mats, and other digital devices — but we are also trained to write new pieces for the ensemble, too. We perform with specially designed hemisphere speakers, which mimic the sonic properties of acoustic instruments and allow listeners to perceive each member of the ensemble as an individual performer. Together, we’re hoping to spark new kinds of creativity — musical, artistic, and intellectual — across Oxford's academic community.
What inspired the project and how did it come together?
Several years ago the first laptop orchestra, PLOrk, was created at Princeton University. It established a model where students could not only express themselves musically through this new medium, but also learn to code and create their own compositions and virtual instruments. Nick DiBerardino, a graduate student in Music Composition, participated in PLOrk during his time as an undergraduate and decided to start a laptop orchestra in Oxford. Along with fellow graduate composers Dan Jeffries and Nigel McBride, Nick persuaded the Faculty of Music for support, and in 2012 OxLORK was born.
How do you go about making music using your laptops?
First we find pieces to play, either written by OxLOrk members or by composers who have written pieces for other laptop orchestras. Next, we learn how to play our virtual instruments, which often change from piece to piece. For instance, some works might utilize the keyboard on a laptop for crafting tones and rhythms, while others take advantage of motion from a laptop’s accelerometer. Others still might use devices like game controllers.
But beyond the exciting task of figuring out all the sounds and gestures your virtual instrument can produce, a lot of work also goes into deciding the form and function of each piece. Just as the means of playing these virtual instruments is non-traditional, so are the instructions for performers to follow. Rarely do we have a standard notated score to go off of: when the musical decisions are open-ended, the group discusses form and actions democratically to create the most exciting result for a concert experience.
What reaction has OxLOrk received from the more classically minded members of the Faculty of Music?
Curiosity. “Laptop orchestra” is an evocative title, and it often leads to a number of questions. They want to know first and foremost what sort of music an ensemble using laptops would play, and how it would sound. They’re not easy queries to answer, as describing the sounds and performance practices doesn’t really do the medium justice. Sometimes the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” feels fitting. In any case, preconceived notions from both music specialists at the Faculty and casual music fans from the general public have been positive — albeit fanciful.
Finally, when and where can people see you perform?
We have a calendar of performances in the pipeline, but the best way to find out about them is to check our Facebook page. People can find performance pictures and videos there, too.