The Laptop Ensemble from Cal State Long Beach will be coming to Tuesdays at Monk Space on January 24 to perform Voyage, a reconceptualization of German lied by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Brahms. In 2013 the group collaborated with a Korean theatre troupe led by Byunkoo Ahn and premiered the concept at the “Spoleto Open” Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. Nearly four years later, we are reimagining the concept once again in Germany with the same troupe (in fact, I’m sitting in our guest house on a snowy day in Hamburg as I type these words), this time joined by local German singers and with new works to premiere.
Which leads to an important question: what is “Laptop Ensemble”?
Martin Herman and Carolyn Bremer founded the ensemble in 2010 with graduate students Zach Lovitch, Andy Zacharias, Seth Shafer, and Brad Van Wick who were already putting on elaborate concerts that featured various analog and modular synthesizers as well as electroacoustic music with live performance from laptops. After seeing these student-run concerts, Martin assisted the students in the creation of the Laptop Ensemble. It’s always been a small group, typically around 5 or 6 members (with an all-time high of 13), but in performance the group is typically a quartet. The group is self-sufficient – they write all of their music mostly in Max-MSP, and their unique speaker arrays, folllowing the PLOrk model, were built by founding member Zach Lovitch, Martin Brenner, and Martin Herman.
The performers are all alumni or current CSULB students, and the pieces are revised versions the works from the 2013 festival.
The opener, Silbertöne by Seth Shafer, is nothing short of attention-grabbing, complete with punchy arpeggiated synths and deep bass tones, a stark contrast to the violin samples that weave in and out throughout. Shafer is also the composer of Upon Return to Earth, a beautiful work that comes later in the program. Feldeinsamkeit, reimagined by the ensemble’s director, Martin Herman, is both meditative and glitchy, with captivating sounds that trickle in and out. Long-time member of the ensemble, Glen Gray, wrote the next piece, Dein Angesicht. It is an abstraction of art song, with piano and voice filtered through an array of effects, and electronic drone joining the duet later on. Assistant director of the ensemble Matthew Lourtie is the composer of Nacht und Trauma: a complete turn from Schubert’s original Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams). Sinken by alumnus Justin Kennedy is an underwater sound world, with melodic whale calls and resonant percussion contributing to the landscape.
Three of the works are newly composed for the 2017 tour. George Wheeler, a lecturer in composition and theory at CSULB and stand-in member of the ensemble, wrote a new version of Ave Maria, which features arpeggiated harmonies over a bed of musique concrète and long melodic tones. These overlapping melodies, along with the arpeggiation, gradually become more dissonant and distorted before returning to consonance at the end of the piece. Next is my own version of Du bist die Ruh, a reimaging of the original Schubert. It begins with a new art song using the same text, which is filtered to sound as if coming from off-stage. This song gives way to a duet of filtered singing bowls and a resonant, melodic bass, and a processed version of the same art song overlaid. The concert closes with a new piece by Oscar Santos-Carrillo, Abendroth. It consists of four layered patches, whose sound worlds are largely influenced by hip-hop and industrial sounds (two of the patches are essentially filtered kick drums with effects). It begins with a sample of the original art song by Schubert, a nod to the sampling pervasive in hip-hop music, which then morphs into a larger cluster of sound.