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Computer musicians fiddle with sampled sounds and write software, but theirs is often a lonely pursuit. Now a few at the vanguard are tapping the musical potential of networked laptop computers. In April, an ensemble called the Princeton Laptop Orchestra will hold its first concert – and solemnly perform a piece inspired by the social call-and-response patterns of swamp frogs.

Fifteen student musicians will sit atop pillows before their laptop-instruments, awaiting their conductor’s signals, which will arrive via instant messages or pop-ups. Then they’ll tap into all sorts of presampled, live, and computer-generated sounds (such as sampled drumbeats, or their own voices reciting the alphabet) and manipulate them with gizmos like glove-mounted accelerometers. Like the frogs, who reply to one another with different sorts of croakings, the musicians will reply to one another with different noises. Tod Machover, the avant-garde musical inventor and composer at MIT’s Media Lab, calls the orchestra “a cooler, better way to teach a new music environment than any I’ve heard of.”

The orchestra’s cocreator, Perry Cook, a Princeton professor of computer science and music, acknowledges that the computers haven’t made performing easier or cheaper; it takes 40 minutes just to set up the wireless network that synchronizes the expensive laptops. So traditional musicians need not see the technology as a threat; if you wanted to play a Beethoven symphony, “it’d be much cheaper to use a traditional orchestra” than the laptop version, Cook says. For now, the ensemble’s aspirations are modest: to survive the semester and become a Princeton fixture.

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