On November 17th, we are excited to welcome the IUSB’s Laptop Ensemble, the Audio-Visual Collective, to live-score a selection of 1920s modernist animated shorts, led by Dr. Ryan Olivier. This form of music began in the early 2000s, with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) leading the way in 2005. The IUSB’s ensemble is an example of how this innovative approach to music has spread to institutions across the world. Their approach fuses technology and creativity, opening up a world of sonic possibilities, especially when it comes to live-scoring performances. The ensemble’s talented members produce a vibrant and unique sound, and you won’t want to miss their upcoming performance.
We’ve asked Dr. Ryan Olivier, Assistant Professor of Music at IUSB, to share some background on the Audio-Visual Collective, and to delve into the world of laptop ensembles to help readers better understand this form of music.
For our readers who may not be familiar, what is a laptop ensemble? What tools are needed in a laptop ensemble?
The term laptop ensemble is a bit of a misnomer for us. It is useful because to the reader it immediately invokes a way of creating music and working together as an ensemble that is uniquely different from strictly acoustic ensembles traditionally associated with university music programs.
At IUSB, the course name for this ensemble is officially the Electronic Music Ensemble. That title has been in place for at least a few decades and obviously precedes the laptop revolution. The ensemble owes much of its existence to David Barton who started the course and continues to hold weekly electronic music improvisation sessions under the title, PLATO & the Western Tradition (listen here).
There are no technical or musical requirements for the course. Students simply show up on the first day and we discuss how we will work together to make music. Some students use laptops, some use tablets or phones, and other students use more traditional electronic instruments such as keyboards, guitars, and basses. I often challenge students to “level-up” their instruments by finding new means for musical expression through the incorporation of unfamiliar technology. This could be a reverse pedal for a bass, an unfamiliar user interface for a music app, or trying out a new piece of hardware like an electronic wind instrument or a modular synthesizer.
How did you get involved with this form of music? How did you start a laptop ensemble?
I remember learning about Princeton and Stanford’s Laptop Ensembles when I was a graduate student at Temple University. They both had silly names PLOrk and SLOrk, respectively, and both experimented with a program called ChucK, created by Ge Wang. At the time, Temple was starting its own ensemble, BEEP (Boyer Electronic Ensemble Project), led by Adam Vidiksis. Adam was kind enough to ask me to write a piece for the ensemble and that was how I first got involved with the paradigm.
One of the first things I did when I came to IUSB in 2016 was lay the groundwork for a similar ensemble here at IUSB. I was fortunate to find a kindred spirit in Eric Souther, at the time a professor in our New Media program. I explained the concept to Eric and together decided to differentiate our ensemble by having a focus on audio-visual works. In the end, we decided to call our group the Audio Visual Collective, and that is the name we’ve been playing under in public.
Could you describe the genre your music would fall into?
Our music tends to be fairly experimental and improvisatory. Depending on the students taking the course, the genre might lean in one direction or another, but for the most part we keep an open mind about the possible sonic outcomes of working together.
What first inspired your passion for music?
For me personally, music has always been about social interaction, whether that be as a performer in an ensemble, a composer writing for others, or as an audience member gathered with others to take part in a sonic experience.
How many members are in your laptop ensemble? Does it consist of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students?
This semester we have six members. We have had as many as twelve students and as few as four. Right now, there are only undergraduate students, but we have had graduate students participate in the past.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your work? The most challenging?
The most enjoyable part is getting to see what the students come up with each semester. I am always surprised by their ideas and talents. The most challenging part is troubleshooting unique challenges that arise from using novel technology, but that is also what makes it fun and exciting.
What is the creative process when developing new pieces? What is a favorite piece and/or a most challenging piece?
Each semester is a bit different. I try to choose a slightly different focus each semester. Sometimes that is due to particular program considerations, but other times, it is a result of requests from the students. For example, the first time the ensemble met in person after being online for an entire year, the students’ primary request was to not use computers. That semester, we programmed a concert entirely around analog synthesizers, electronic keyboards, and electric guitars and basses.
We often discuss strategies as a group. If we are performing a notated work, we discuss challenges and performance solutions. If we are planning a structured improvisation, we might discuss what strategies we hope to employ. Even when we perform works of free improvisation, we typically discuss the outcomes and things that worked well and things that could use improvement.
I’m not sure I have a favorite. We’ve done such a wide variety, it is hard to pick.
Each piece has unique challenges. I’m not sure one has been an outlier in this regard.
How do you think technology is changing and evolving the music scene, particularly when it comes to cinema?
The most exciting thing to me is immersive audio. Dolby’s Atmos format has gained widespread popularity, which makes it much easier for composers and artists to create immersive soundscapes that allow for similar experiences for the users whether they are in a VR/AR world, a cinema, or in their home theatre.
What do you like best about live-scoring?
This might be an odd answer, but for me, I like the ease of live-scoring. Our ensemble has done a lot of interactive media works where the musical actions of the performers affect the visuals on the screen. This is almost new territory for us in that we are solely reacting to the images on the screen and the other performers in the ensemble. This has allowed us to spend a lot more time listening to one another and focusing on these captivating works of early, abstract animation.
How do you prepare before a performance?
We rehearse once a week. For these pieces, we spent time watching them and discussing our various approaches to each film. We then perform along to the film and participate in group critiques afterward.
Leading up to the performance, we will load up our gear, drive over to DPAC, and unload for a sound check. It takes us a bit to get everything plugged in just to make our first sound. Once that is ready, we will probably run through our most challenging film and make sure our sound levels are good and we feel comfortable in the space. Afterwards, we will take a short break, and get ready to breathe new musical life into these works.
Does the group have a shared favorite/memorable performance?
I think a highlight for the group is our annual performance at the Performing Media Festival. The ensemble and the festival have a similar history. We do a call for works, and pick a piece to perform during the festival each spring.
What artists/composers inspire you?
Most recently I’ve been inspired by professional ensembles that have come out of educational ensembles similar to ours. Ensemble Decipher, Sideband, and Splice Ensemble come to mind. They all serve as proof that these kinds of projects have life outside of the academy, and I look forward to seeing more growth from the work of other campus music groups such as ours.
We appreciate Dr. Ryan Olivier taking the time to share what laptop ensembles entail and to give more background on the Audio-Visual Collective. The future of laptop ensembles is a world filled with possibilities, as these ensembles continue to explore new horizons and push the boundaries of music, technology, and creativity.
Get ready to experience the unique sound of the Audio-Visual Collective on Friday, November 17th, at 7pm.
November 17th at 7pm
IUSB’s Laptop Ensemble, Led by Dr. Ryan Olivier
IUSB’s Laptop Ensemble, led by Dr. Ryan Olivier, will be live-scoring a selection of 1920s modernist animated shorts by Hans Richter, Len Lye, Viking Eggeling, and Walter Ruttmann. Their animated films, which were similarly groundbreaking in their day, remain a trip to watch and tee up perfectly for new scores that meet them at the technological fore they once inhabited.