Gesture—the physical, real-time interaction of performer and instrument—is at the heart of all music making. The trace of the performer’s touch can be heavily imprinted onto the texture of the sound, as in highly physical improvisations on acoustic instruments, or it can be an implicit presence known only indirectly through the movement of the sound, as is true of more touch-sensitive electronic music. Thus it is that the Concordia Laptop Orchestra’s Dancing with Laptops presents the seeming paradox of creating an explicitly gestural sound work through computers.
The Concordia Laptop Orchestra (CLOrk) was established by Eldad Tsabary, professor of electroacoustic and sound art composition at Montreal’s Concordia University. The ensemble, which is made up of twenty or so undergrads in advanced courses in electroacoustic music, has a process-based focus on developing improvisational work through a cycle of composition, performance and critical discussion. Dancing with Laptops, a performance for CLOrk in collaboration with dancers Stéphanie Bernard, Claudine Dubé and Émilie Morin, was conceived as an improvisational dialogue between sound and movement in which the dancers’ physical gestures would be translated into sound gestures through the mediation of prearranged compositional parameters and engaged observation.
As can be seen in the video of this performance, the music does set up an elaborate series of correspondences to the movement throughout its 31-minute length. The musicians create such sonic analogues to the dancer’s physical motions as the swoop of a glissando as a dancer unfolds her body to full length; reverberant percussive thumps underscoring leaps and landings; or open silences enveloping pauses in movement. More generally, the ebb and flow of sound events operate as an audio image once removed of corresponding variations in the pace and intensity of the dance. This affords a kind of parallel motion between musicians and dancers as filtered through such formal qualities as tempo, dynamics and textural density. Happily, CLOrk leave ample open spaces and avoid submerging the dancers under an overwhelming mass of constant sound.
Although as a sound work Dancing with Laptops was performed as one half of a larger, integrated multimedia work, it stands on its own as a finely constructed composition of engaging timbres.