Listen to PLOrk’s “Clix,” produced by key presses:
One of the joys of a live perfomance is witnessing firsthand how a certain sound is created and pinpointing its origin onstage. But not at the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk, performance this Saturday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The stage visual remained relatively static: Aside from the dynamic conductors, the group might as well have been a bunch of students sitting next to speakers doing homework on their computers.
But PLOrk is not a conventional orchestra performing a symphony, and it shouldn’t be evaluated as such. Its musicians are textural soundsmiths and conceptual auditory artists. Their first piece, “In/Still,” featured what sounded like organ winds passing through a thicket of trees, ringing cymbals and fleeting flocks of beeps, interruptions of crunching rewinds, pots and pans and metallic drainage, and other noises both twisted and familiar. About 15 “players” dressed simply in black clothing and orange socks sat crosslegged on meditation cushions. With their focused bearing and MacBooks poised on their laps, they looked like monks gathered in a shrine to the media prowess of Apple. The first conductor, barefoot, swayed in her flowing shirt and pants, directing the group with meterless motions, sweeping her arms and bending her knees like a tai chi practitioner. When the piece was over, she bowed with her palms together, as in the classic Indian greeting or the Buddhist “gassho,” a sign of thanks. These meditative undertones were not accidental. An excerpt from the piece’s unusually short and sweet program notes was written as a sort of haiku: “Playful encounters of movement, sound, and gaze / instill a flow between us.”
Reading the PLOrk program notes enhanced the experience, as is usually the case when listening to concept-based contemporary music. Without the background info, sounds were just sounds, albeit interesting ones. “Self-Organizing Grooves” contained shadows of the attacks and timbres of conventional instruments, especially piano, low strings, high reeds, brass and percussion, all digitally morphed and intensified. The “instruments” rattled off lines in different scales; there was no distinct key. But the piece wasn’t just intriguing noise — program notes explain how each PLOrk member could instantaneously “spy” on and lift from the others’ musical creations during the piece via the wireless network connecting all the laptops. It was an exploration in real-time, digital, musical collaboration.
In “Etch-a-PLOrk,” the group members drew on their touchpads to create visual forms such as rectangles and squigglies that the computer programs converted into sound. It evolved into something almost Sigur Ros-esque as a throbbing expanse of tone spread over layers of noise, a steady yet delicate beat and a single sustained note. Toward the end, an audio clip of an advertisement for Etch-a-Sketch was thrown into the mix as well.
Even pieces that weren’t so conceptual were enjoyable just for their neat beats and strange sounds. “CliX” evoked a couple of bottle caps tripping down a staircase, or bubbling water, or small muffled bells. “Crystalis” sought to represent the atmospheric realm of cloud crystals, combining gusts of wind stirred by a circular touchpad motion with thread-thin, upper-register echoes that emulated bowed vibes.
“Zero-point” was merely a collection of shining harmonics with gradual glissandos — a boring piece of music that made for a thoroughly engaging listening exercise. “Timber is a Timbre” was the percussive equivalent of “Zero-point” and integrated members of Northwestern’s percussion ensemble: both were like auditory ecosystems for the listener to zoom in and out of, shifting focus from one noise to another.
“Sweep” involved a real, live violinist and percussionist. When the stage was set, one audience member commented, “Real instruments? What? That’s not allowed.” The manual violin and percussion sounded refreshingly organic amidst the electronic noise. Violinist Maja Cerar danced with her instrument, crouching and weaving across the stage. She coaxed a hollow and breathless tone from her violin, like that of a Middle Eastern flute.
For this piece, PLOrk members stood wielding Wii controllers to create noises ranging from Zelda sound effects to the rumbling of a washing machine the size of a house. Their Wii motions weren’t always synced — not that it mattered. Part of the beauty of this style is that mess-ups can come off as intentional, a consequence of aleatoric music, which relies on chance and improvisation rather than detailed instructions (think John Cage). The pieces could not have been recreated accurately by combining tracks in fancy audio software. Spontaneity would have been lost.
That’s what made the live performance worthwhile. Sure, different sounds could not be easily distinguished; one member moving his finger on the touchpad looked just like the next. But the spur-of-the-moment collaboration and intriguing concepts captured the ear and brain. PLOrk achieved a oneness and live-in-the moment sensibility that would have made the Buddha proud.