Concert review: ICC10: Dublin Laptop Orchestra

Sunday, January 25, 2015 - 11:30am

Composer JUDITH RING reviews the Dublin Laptop Orchestra's performance at the ICC10 Festival

Laptop orchestras are quite a new phenomenon. Obviously they have only surfaced in any great fashion over the last 10 years, so there is a lot to be discovered about how effective the playing of numerous laptops together can be, and how they can be received and perceived by the audience. The difference with a laptop orchestra as opposed to an instrumental orchestra is that the audience has no real clue as to who is doing what, and indeed what everybody is doing on the screen. This may or may not be a problem for the audience but I have to admit that it irks me a little bit in such a setup.

At some point in the mid-naughties laptop orchestras surfaced in various universities around the world. Princeton was one of the first and was run by Dan Trueman who also had an instrumental part in helping set up the Dublin Laptop Orchestra with Alex Dowling while he was on sabbatical in Trinity in 2011. Rachel Ní Chuinn, David Collier and Jenn Kirby were also involved in the initial setup. Rachel and Jenn were part of this ICC concert along with Rory Caraher, Brian Dillon and Ben McKenna.

Here’s what they have to say on their website about what they do:

“We make music with laptops, built-in cameras, motion sensors, golf controllers, and anything else we can hack. Our aim is to bring some theatricality and physical presence into electronic music performance. We have played with This Is We How Fly, Yurodny, Crash Ensemble and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and have created numerous site-specific performances for galleries, such as Temple Bar Galleries & Studios, the RHA, Market Studios, The Back Loft, the Centre for Creative Practices and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.”

Since laptops have been used as musical performance tools there has always been an issue of performability in live situations. Because one has to be so focused on the screen and the audience has no idea what you are doing, the performance can feel very divorced from the listener and it is often hard to connect with the on-stage presence. This is one of the main things that a laptop orchestra wishes to combat. Already by having several laptop performers on stage at the same you are experiencing something more aesthetically exciting than just having one person up there. The Dublin Laptop Orchestra use physical controllers that help to further engage the listener. With the use of sensors and tethers they are not locked to their screens but can move, with a dance-like quality. The tether controllers are two strings that can be pulled out of their base to control various parameters within the software instruments they are connected to. So by pulling a string one way the sound will alter according to the patch it is controlling, such as the rate of granulation or pitch etc…

Several pieces were performed with varying degrees of interactivity. The most effective of these from an audience perspective were the ones where most or all of the ensemble were using the tethers and sensors. In one piece, one of the performers, Brian Dillon, used sensors. He was completely hands free using the inbuilt camera as a motion sensor so that the movements he made with his arms determined what happened in the music. This was very effective indeed and I would have liked to have seen more of this particular technique with more of the ensemble members involved.

The pieces sounded great overall and the range of ideas was quite diverse from beginning to end. Featured composers were Elis Czerniak, Danial Reid, Stephen Kavanagh, Jane Deasy and Peter Moran. There were also a couple of improvisations from the orchestra.

I think there is a lot of potential for a laptop orchestra such as this one and I would love to see it developed and expanded somewhat. They could really benefit from the use of a choreographer for the tethered sections. They are not dancers, but in order for the tether technique to be effective as a visual performance tool a great deal of body movement awareness is required and not all of the members have this. In general a stronger air of confidence on stage would really boost their overall presence and develop the performance into a more effective spectacle. More interaction with one another in terms of communicating with each other by sight from time to time (as you would in an acoustic orchestral situation) would enhance the overall strength of the performance. Perhaps this was partially due to performance anxiety but it is something that was quite noticeable and took away from the performance somewhat.

Overall though, this is an exciting ensemble that has a lot of potential and I hope to see it progress more and more over the years to come.

Judith Ring is a Dublin-based composer and curator of the Listen at Lilliput concert series. See

The Dublin Laptop Orchestra are Rory Caraher, Brian Dillon, Jenn Kirby, Ben McKenna, and Rachel Ní Chuinn. See

Photos: Dublin Laptop Orchestra performing at ICC10, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, November 2014. Photo by Daryl Feehely