University of York plays host to the first laptop orchestra event in the UK

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The University of York played host to the UK’s largest laptop orchestra last week. in a production entitled ‘Worldscape’, sponsored by computer giant Apple.

The performances were held on November 14 and 15 and consisted of 50 music students using laptops to produce orchestrated music complemented by song, dance, film and traditional instruments.

Organised and inspired by Lecturer of Music and three-time Prix Ars Electronica award winner Ambrose Field, the event was sponsored by computer company Apple and attracted attention from the national media.

“Worldscape is a unique approach to orchestral music: unlike traditional pieces in which classical instruments are involved, all that is needed is a laptop,” said Ruth Keggin, a music undergraduate who participated in the event.

Students were spread across the floor with their laptops and interacted with what they saw in front of them, manipulating the sound using keycards. The computer responds by changing the volume or pitch of the note, and the product can be heard through headphones. In Field’s words, “each person can hear their own part and how it relates to those around them and play the piece together”.

The laptops used tailor-made software which was designed by Field and a group of postgraduate music students. In one piece, entitled ‘Hide and Seek’, software was designed to provide a musical parameter in which the performers ex­plored a digital world map.

A large segment of the performance was improvised. “The beauty of the perfor­mance was that the results were subtly different,” said Olivia Haugh­ton, a first-year music student who also took part. “We were given complete freedom to develop creative interpretations of current world issues through the medium of music,” she added.

Second years Sally Desmond and Hannah Wells, directors of several of the project’s prominent pieces, described World­scape as “more about musicality than anything else, which makes it very accessible”. The appeal of the project was “the emphasis on how you interpret the sound”. They also praised the involvement of the first years who had little under five weeks to prepare for this unusual performance.

“It’s a completely different sort of music,” said first year Virginia Rousiamani. “It’s very communicative and so different from anything at A-Level. It’s those things that make music what it is. It doesn’t matter how it is made,” she added Field said that he was enthused about the magnitude of the musical project. He said: “there are no universities that are doing anything remotely like this. It is the creativity of the students that has achieved something amazing.” He also described the sound produced as “something incredible that’s created by humans”, stressing, “that’s the real achievement, not the technology.”

Field was responsible for Apple’s involvement, saying, “I wanted everybody who was on my course to take part in it without having to pay for laptops or insurance or any of that junk.”

The event was met with mixed reactions. Observer Ben Colvin commented, “Although it was interesting I found it really intense. It was so different than anything I’ve heard before.” Another audience member, Catrin Bourke disagreed by saying “It was strange, but I found it really enjoyable.”

Field was keen to stress that technology is not a replacement for traditional instruments, stating that “They’ll say this is the end of the traditional orchestra, but it doesn’t mean that – it’s just a different thing.”

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