Toneburst Laptop Ensemble Finds New Ways to Make Music

CFA Arts Administration Intern Chloe Jones ’15 writes about the Toneburst Laptop and Electronic Arts Ensemble and its upcoming performance on Friday, May 9, 2014.

Last spring Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen founded Wesleyan’s Toneburst Laptop and Electronic Arts Ensemble.  This Friday, May 9 at 8pm in World Music Hall the group will have their final performance of the year.  They’re calling it an “electroextravaganza.”

Most of us don’t think of our laptop computers as instruments, so what then is a Laptop Ensemble?

Each member in the ensemble performs with a laptop that’s connected to a hemispherical speaker.  Fourteen members strong, Toneburst projects sound out of an equal number of hemispherical speakers.  Members draw from pre-existing programs and ones that they create themselves in order to generate remarkably inventive musical scores, each one a unique interaction between laptop and musician.

Highly interactive, it’s as much about the ensemble as it is about the technology.  Just like any instrumental ensemble, the members assume different roles depending on the score and constantly engage with one another.

“This is a different way of recognizing the laptop as instrument but also as social interaction,” says Ms. Matthusen.  “It takes its inputs in a way that we have to interact with each other.”

One work in this Friday’s concert has ensemble members connected to their computers and clapping hands, so that each time two members clap a musical note sounds.  The original score, composed by graduate student Christopher Ramos Flores, transforms the ensemble into a circuit system.

“They are essentially acting like a large keyboard,” explains Ms. Matthusen.

Another piece derives its material from OKCupid, an online dating site. Composed by graduate student Daniel Fishkin, the score utilizes text-to-speech software to transform the OKCupid profiles into sound.

“Daniel’s piece recognizes the laptop as an interface to this entire other world,” comments Ms. Matthusen—the world of online dating and social networks.

This Friday’s concert is particularly momentous for Toneburst because it is comprised primarily of new works written by the ensemble members.

The scores are imaginative and engaging, technical and compelling.  Each one is carefully crafted and then rehearsed again and again.  Yet the laptop ensemble leaves a lot of room for improvisation and play.

“Learning the program is the first part of it and then you can figure out how to actually express yourself using the restrictions of the score,” explains Toneburst member Mark Frick ’14. “You’re taking a technology that hasn’t been exploited for something particularly expressive before and using it for an expressive means.”

“There’s a shared spirit of exploration that has evolved through the group as part of this way of making music,” reflects Ms. Matthusen.  “They are working together to realize these scores, and there’s a power about that.”

The Toneburst Electroextravaganza concert is Friday, May 9, 2014  at 8pm in the CFA’s World Music Hall. Admission is free.