Laptop Orchestra brings creative fusion to the Fringe

If your body was an instrument, what would it sound like? This is one of the questions that David Heid ’13 attempts to answer with the Rochester Laptop Orchestra, an interactive exhibition that blends art and science.  The event, featuring two performances on Thursday, September 18th and Saturday, September 20th, is one of many showcases at this year’s Rochester Fringe Festival.

Inspired by performances at Princeton and Stanford, Heid’s computer-based compositions explore the ways that the digital and electronic sciences can intersect with music.  “This one’s different in the sense that it’s more interactive,” he said. Heid’s exhibition will allow the audience to be a part of the musical experience. The Laptop Orchestra promises to provide a multimodal, interactive experience that showcases the breadth of creativity and innovation that the University of Rochester has to offer.

Heid believes that the project well represents the focus of his studies of music education and electrical and computer engineering.  A former dual degree student at Eastman and the River campus, he is now a second year masters student pursuing a degree in musical acoustics and signal processing.  In many senses, the creation of the Laptop Orchestra is a fusion of Heid’s dual interests and various talents by showcasing the combination of music and engineering.  “Music has never felt academic enough for me,” he admitted. “This is a nice way to blend it in a way that it can be.”

Instead of conventional instruments, the “orchestra” makes use of computers and motion sensing controllers used by undergraduates to generate sound.  One piece involves a dancer from Ballet Performance Group creating sound through movement. Through a Wiimote and gesture recognition technology, dance moves are translated into music.  A similar piece allows a dancer to generate pre-recorded sound bites from the Yellowjackets according to specific steps on electronically wired tap shoes.  Another performance brings in the Plank Road North Elementary Drum Ensemble creating a composition of pre-recorded vocal percussion.

Heid’s event is just as interactive as it is collaborative, which differentiates it from the earlier digital orchestras.  One segment of the performance allows an audience member to control the rhythm of the piece through the use of a hacked Bop-It.  Another allows the audience to decide the progression of a musical landscape as produced by the campus Carillon Society.

One of the more personal pieces involves mapping viruses to music. Using data from translated genomes, Heid created compositions that function as musical representations of HIV and ebola, among other illnesses. Last spring, Heid was quarantined after the measles outbreak, which was an experience that put a strain on his academic momentum as a grad student.  Instead of viewing it as a setback, he used the experience as an opportunity, working with an epidemiologist to create the virus-themed pieces.

While the Laptop Orchestra is in many ways the apex of Heid’s academic career, the show is not entirely about him; the project actually brought in the knowledge and talent of over 40 different students. “I know I’m not an expert in everything, and that’s why I brought these people in,” Heid said. “At Rochester, we do great things in every discipline. With the Laptop Orchestra, we can do those things together.”

Proceeds from ticket sales will go to RocMusic collaborative, which offers classical and instrumental music lessons to children in the downtown Rochester area. Getting a musical start in Pennsylvania through a similar program, he hopes that this early opportunity program can provide children with the same access to the arts.

All in all, Heid hopes that the performances will bring attention to the many possibilities that music has to offer in the modern world. “There’s not a lot in the industry that tries to blend stuff like this; I want to get people thinking.” With the Rochester Laptop Orchestra, he’s sure to do just that.

The Rochester Laptop Orchestra will have two shows on Thursday, September 18th at 6:00PM and Saturday, September 20th at 2:30PM at the TheatreROCS Stage at Xerox Auditorium.

Sound ExChange Orchestra Shakes up Classical Music

Univ. Communications – You may think that the only way to hear a classical music concert is by sitting in the audience of a performance hall, the musicians playing at you. Emily Wozniak, a first-year Master’s student at the Eastman School of Music, decided to change that. This year, she organized the Sound ExChange Orchestra, a unique group of musicians from across the University community who are devoted to bringing a new energy and interactiveness to the classical music scene.

VIDEO: Sound Exchange Performs at the School of Medicine & Dentistry

“I love this music but there’s something about the way it’s presented that’s a little bit outdated,” said Wozniak. So, instead of being clustered on the stage of an imposing concert hall, the Sound ExChange is democratizing its acoustic experience by inviting the audience to sit among them as they perform. This is a way to break down the barriers that normally exist between the audience and the musicians, and Wozniak thinks, between the audience and the music itself.

The orchestra has almost fifty members at the moment. Wozniak, who plays the French horn, recruited from Eastman and other parts of the University and while the brass and wind sections quickly filled up, it has been a challenge to recruit enough string players. She is hopeful, however, that the new experience afforded by Sound ExChange will attract more musicians. “Sitting in the orchestra for us is really exciting because there’s kind of like a palpable energy when you’re sitting in a group all playing the same music and working together,” she said. By including the audience in that energy, the performance becomes more personal.

At their first concert on November 17 in Flaum Atrium at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, the group performed their favorite selections from well-known compositions by Rossini, Brahms, and Beethoven. The musicians also talked with the audience throughout the concert, providing a context to help listeners connect with the music.

“I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s really exciting to include other members of the public within it because it’s one of the really exciting parts of music making that the audience can’t usually participate in, being surrounded by the sound,” said Christina Balsam-Curren, who was in attendance to the concert in Flaum Atrium and is a musician herself.

Geoffrey Pope, the orchestra’s conductor, also has enjoyed the challenge of coordinating the group in performances while the audience members sit among them. “Performing in new spaces with the orchestra seated in a sort of “exploded” arrangement presents us with musical and logistical challenges,” Pope wrote in an email. “Naturally, filling the spaces between performers with audience members makes hearing each other more tricky, but I think the adrenaline we feel playing within (rather than toward) the audience can make up for this.” He added, “The experience drives us to become more adaptable as musicians than we would be in a concert hall.”

In addition to the large concerts given by the entire group, members of the Sound ExChange also perform community outreach concerts as small chamber ensembles. They strive to fulfill their educational mission in these smaller groups as well, encouraging discussion with the audience. In a recent performance at the Strong Museum of Play, the musicians played selections from the Nutcracker and invited children to dance along with the music and try out the instruments.

Wozniak sees music as “a reflection of human thought and emotion,” which can be palpable to anyone. “I think it helps to tell people ‘Ok, we’re listening to this movement and this is what Beethoven was thinking when he wrote this piece, this is what he lived through. He went deaf, this is the suffering he went through, this is what he loved,’ and that facilitates a human connection to the music and that’s what it’s about, just connecting with it in some way. You don’t have to know what goes into composition to feel an emotional connection to music,” she explained.

The goal is not only to make the music relevant and engaging for new audiences, however. Wozniak’s vision is to show the connections between music and the other disciplines within the University and beyond. After the successful concert at the Medical School, which tapped into connections between music and medicine, the Sound ExChange will be performing at the Simon Graduate School of Business on Thursday, Feb. 23, and at the Sage Fest on Thursday, April 5, an event held by the department of Art and Art History. The former concert will highlight innovators in music, connecting the entrepreneurial spirit with musical creativity; the latter will explore connections between music and the visual arts.

“Classical music usually is viewed as this elite art that you either have to be wealthy or white to connect with, or come from this background where you’ve played violin since you were two years old. I just like to compare it to writing or visual art. The humanities aren’t something reserved for a certain population. Music is the same thing, it’s a reflection of human thought and emotion,” said Wozniak.

As the group grows and develops, her hope is to eventually collaborate with all of the academic areas of the University and to take the group on the road. The concerts are free of charge for the audience but a more solid business plan is being developed to make it a sustainable endeavor. Earning a living as a musician, after all, also is a major challenge to the proliferation of classical music in the community.

The Sound ExChange welcomes any interested musicians or anyone who would be interested in becoming involved with the administration of the group to contact Emily Wozniak at ewozniak@u.rochester.edu. Check out the group’s site and Facebook page for more information.

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).