The new pulse of digital music

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Video killed the radio star, but Bob Pritchard thinks digital cameras and other gadgets might just save live electronic music.

Pritchard, a professor of music at the University of British Columbia, is using technologies that capture physical movement to transform the human body into a musical instrument.

Pritchard and the music and engineering students who make up the UBC Laptop Orchestra wanted to inject more human performance in digital music after attending one too many uninspiring laptop music sets. “Live electronic music can be a bit of an oxymoron,” says Pritchard, referring to artists gazing at their laptops and a heavy reliance on backing tracks.

“Emerging tools and techniques can help electronic musicians find more creative and engaging ways to present their work. What results is a richer experience, which can create a deeper, more emotional connection with your audience.”

Wii will rock you

The Laptop Orchestra, which will perform a free public concert on April 10, is an extension of a music technology course at UBC’s School of Music. Comprised of 17 students from Arts, Science and Engineering, its members act as musicians, dancers, composers, programmers and hardware specialists. They create adventurous electroacoustic music using programmed and acoustic instruments, including harp, piano, clarinet and violin.

Despite its name, surprisingly few laptops are actually touched onstage. “That’s one of our rules,” says Pritchard, who is helping to launch UBC’s new minor degree in Applied Music Technology in September with Laptop Orchestra co-director Keith Hamel. “Avoid touching the laptop!”

Instead, students use body movements to trigger programmed synthetic instruments or modify the sound of their live instruments in real-time. They strap motion sensors to their bodies and instruments, play wearable iPhone instruments, swing Nintendo Wiis or PlayStation Moves, while Kinect video cameras from Sony Xboxes track their movements.

“Adding movement to our creative process has been awesome,” says Kiran Bhumber, a fourth-year music student and clarinet player. The program helped attract her back to Vancouver after attending a performing arts high school in Toronto. “I really wanted to do something completely different. When I heard of the Laptop Orchestra, I knew it was perfect for me. I begged Bob to let me in.”

View a photo gallery of the Laptop Orchestra in action

A unique musical duet

In an unconventional music partnership, the Laptop Orchestra pairs 4th year engineering students from UBC’s Dept. of Computer and Electrical Engineering with UBC musicians. The unlikely pairing is designed to better prepare students for workplaces that combine creative and technical professionals. The engineers come with expertise in programming and wireless systems and the musicians bring their performance and composition chops, and program code as well.

“It’s been a fantastic artistic and technical collaboration,” says Pritchard, noting that video game giant Electronic Arts and other multimedia companies have hired several of the music grads. “Each group has their own strengths and benefit from the skills and perspectives of the other. We want to teach them the building blocks for successful collaborations, wherever their path takes them.”

Besides creating their powerful music, the students have invented a series of interfaces and musical gadgets. The first is the app sensorUDP, which transforms musicians’ smartphones into motion sensors. Available in the Android app store and compatible with iPhones, it allows performers to layer up to eight programmable sounds and modify them by moving their phone.

Music student Pieteke MacMahon modified the app to create an iPhone Piano, which she plays on her wrist, thanks to a mount created by engineering classmates. As she moves her hands up, the piano notes go up in pitch. When she drops her hands, the sound gets lower, and a delay effect increases if her palm faces up. “Audiences love how intuitive it is,” says the composition major. “It creates music in a way that really makes sense to people, and it looks pretty cool onstage.”

Have laptop, will travel

Earlier this year, the ensemble’s unique music took them to Europe. The class spent 10 days this February in Belgium where they collaborated and performed in concert with researchers at the University of Mons, a leading institution for research on gesture-tracking technology.

The Laptop Orchestra’s trip was sponsored by UBC’s Go Global and Arts Research Abroad, which together send hundreds of students on international learning experiences each year.

In Belgium, the ensemble’s dancer Diana Brownie wore a body suit covered head-to-toe in motion sensors as part of a University of Mons research project on body movement. The researchers – one a former student of Pritchard’s – will use the suit’s data to help record and preserve cultural folk dances.

The third-year Psychology student says the ensemble’s motion technology helps non-musical collaborators feel more part of the show. “As a dancer, the music typically dictates your movements,” Brownie says. “But with this, your dancing create the sounds – so it’s been a really great experience.”

Bhumber says the program will help, artistically and economically, when she pursues a music career after graduation.

“Recording artists need to support themselves through their live shows,” she says. “It blows people’s minds to see music created this way, so the technology helps set me apart from other artists. And economically, I can work solo or in small groups, which makes touring viable. I just pack my laptop, my clarinet and some sensors, and hit the road.”

Video: Diana Brownie of the UBC Laptop Orchestra

 

Video: The iPhone Piano

 

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