Keyboard players create laptop orchestra in Dublin
NET RESULTS:‘WE MAKE music with lots of laptops, hands, golf controllers, a wireless router, and anyone that plays . . . anything.”
Going by that statement on their website, it’s clear you’re in for a bit of fun with the Dublin Laptop Orchestra, but it would be a mistake to think this isn’t serious music as well, pushing fascinating, overlapping boundaries between old and new.
As I sit in a side balcony of the National Concert Hall and watch them rehearsing an astonishing piece with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and traditional singer Eimear Quinn, it is apparent that seven members of this group are very serious indeed.
Spread in a tight horseshoe before conductor Gavin Maloney, with the full symphony fanning out behind them, six players in their socks stand before an array of Mac laptops on the floor, and mounds of custom-built hexagonal speakers. In their hands they clutch toggles of red string “tethers” that attach to a small black device at their feet – former Xbox golf game controllers. One player is on an electronic drum kit.
To the side, Quinn, the 1996 Eurovision winner, sways with the music as her voice soars over the combination of symphony and the curious tones of the Dublin Laptop Orchestra – DubLork (@DubLork on Twitter) for short.
The DubLork players are involved in their own kind of dance – squatting, rising, leaning forward, leaning back, with the tethers in each hand. The tethers, explains orchestra co-founder Alex Dowling afterwards, play the laptops. The hacked game controllers feed instructions to software, which is programmed to emit a desired sound in real time. The tether movements – up, down, forward, back, in a swirl – change pitch, volume and other aspects of the sound.
Dowling co-founded the orchestra, one of only a handful around the world, almost two years ago, with the man who is now his PhD supervisor at Princeton University, renowned music technologist Dan Trueman.
Uniquely, DubLork focuses not only on new music and technology but also fresh interpretations of Irish traditional music, in collaboration with trad musicians. Hence the work with Quinn, who tells me she finds the new work challenging and very exciting.
Their concert this Saturday will be the first time a laptop orchestra anywhere in the world has played with a full symphony. The event will mix traditional performances by Quinn of music by composers such as Ó Riada and Moore, accompanied by the symphony, with the debut of two DubLork pieces, Dowling’s Very Pointy and Emma O’Halloran’s Whisper City, with Quinn.
Why create a laptop orchestra? “There’s a whole world of sounds you can get from a computer that you can’t get from traditional instruments. And with the power of these devices now, there’s the ability to do things in real time with low levels of latency [delay]. That really opens it all up,” says Dowling.
The tethers operate on a three-dimensional axis, and the nature of the sound elicited by a given movement can change for different sounds at different points of the composition. Composing is an involved process that requires much personal notation and direction, says O’Halloran. “You think of what sound you want first, then how to make that sound, then how your gestures work with that. This has been incredibly exciting and is really taking a risk.”
Is it challenging to work with laptops on stage? “There are sometimes technical issues,” says O’Halloran.
That old standby of turning a machine off and on again usually fixes problems – something viewers may not notice, given that the DubLork players crouch and rise before their laptops anyway.
They hope this type of new music will bring in younger audiences who might not normally go to symphony performances. But they’re happy if the performance rattles some listeners and challenges their notion of music.
“It’s great if your stuff splits an audience,” says Dowling, recalling that audience members famously got into a fight at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. With a note of regret, he adds: “But people are a lot less inclined to riot these days.”
An Evening with Eimear Quinn and the Dublin Laptop Orchestra, National Concert Hall, 8pm, Saturday. Tickets from €10