Sharp sirens reminiscent of a retro video game and “Hey Siri” play over a distorted background.
These sounds and sights might seem unexpected from a traditional ensemble performance, but these experimental beats are what set the Long Beach State Laptop Ensemble apart.
The Laptop Ensemble is a performance group composed of students from various majors who use the programming software Max to generate sounds through patching, or coding, on their laptops. Before students take the stage with their synthesized, experimental beats, they need to learn not only how to use the software, but how to explore their own creativity.
“We build pieces together every week and perform together,” said Martin Herman, director of the laptop ensemble. “Pretty early on, they’re making music with this. As that develops, so [do] their ideas.”
Unlike a traditional instrument, there are no limitations as to what can be produced on a laptop.
That is why Herman provides feedback and shares works composed by other laptop ensembles, helping students train their ears to sounds they can play with. During performances, members of the ensemble are encouraged to do more than stand behind their glowing laptops on stage.
“It can look like a bunch of people doing their homework,” Herman said. “If you compare that with a band and you see people playing, moving their hands, you see a correlation.”
To make their performance dynamic, the laptop ensemble uses video game controllers, pressing down on buttons and twisting knobs as if it was their instrument. They also perform with their bodies, swaying from head to toe to the sometimes soft and other times disorienting songs.
“It’s very improvisational,” said assistant director Cameron Johnston. “That’s something that’s hard for a lot of students.”
Johnston, a fifth-year music composition major, joined the ensemble in 2017 and recalled how more experienced ensemble members put those unfamiliar with Max, like himself, at a disadvantage. Now, Johnston is assistant director of the laptop ensemble and stressed how important it is to him that no student feels left behind or intimidated.
He also sees the ensemble as a way to engage with other mediums, such as when the laptop ensemble collaborated with the Kleefeld Contemporary to compose pieces that responded to an exhibit.
“A lot of the ensemble is trying to get people to do what they want,” Johnston said.
This resonated with former laptop ensemble member David Garcia Saldaña, who received a master’s degree in music composition in fall 2019.
“Working in a laptop ensemble helped me break out of the construct of what music is,” Saldaña said. “What is it to make music? What is it to be a musician? So many people go through music training never having to question these fundamentals of their sound making.”
When Saldaña joined the ensemble in 2017, he knew nothing about laptop ensembles. Soon, he realized that using Max gave him the freedom to explore his creativity as it allowed him to control every sound he inputted and fine tuned it in a way he had not done before.
“There’s a bias against electronic music as some kind of wannabe music,” Saldaña said, as he recalled how some students within the music department dismissed the idea of using laptops as an instrument.
For Saldaña, the ensemble only added to his skillset.
Though members of the ensemble may come and go, forming their own laptop ensembles or continuing in their respective fields, the CSULB Laptop Ensemble asks its members to explore something new.
“You become more culturally literate,” Herman said. “It’s a very niche area, [but] none of that is ever wasted. It can only expand a person’s outlook.”
The Laptop Ensemble’s next performance will be Wednesday, April 29 at 8 p.m. in Daniel Recital Hall.
Audio in article performed by the CSULB Laptop Ensemble. Click any text highlighted in gray to listen.
Watch the laptop ensemble’s performance spring 2019:
Video by: Paula Kiley
Edited by: Adam Pacheco