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Improvisation as Tool and Intention: Organizational Practices in Laptop Orchestras and Their Effect on Personal Musical Approaches

Jeff Albert

Published: 2012-05-08

Improvisation is a practice as old as music; the laptop orchestra possibly the newest of ensembles. How can this ancient practice and this ultra-modern ensemble intersect? How does technology affect the way music is organized? How does such musical organization affect the performers?

This paper looks at the variety of improvisational practices in laptop orchestras and ensembles using the repertoire of the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana (of which I am a member) as a starting point. Laptop orchestras have developed out of musical situations rooted in the Western European classical tradition (and its experimental fringe). Although this tradition has lost much of its connection to improvisation, the rise of laptop orchestras has (re)introduced improvisation as a fertile musical practice. This paper will consider how practicing improvisation has affected the musical outlook of members of these ensembles.

Five pieces from the repertoire of the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana (LOLs) serve as case studies for exploring improvisation as an organizational practice. We see how improvisation is used as a tool to facilitate the discovery and development of new instruments, and to address local content in situations where a commonly understood system of notation does not exist. We also see how improvisation becomes the intention of other musical settings. These findings are reinforced by a survey of leaders of other laptop orchestras.

The last century of traditional academic performance studies has not privileged improvisation in a significant way; therefore, many musicians participating in laptop orchestras are new to improvisation, or even biased against it. Interviews with some of these musicians show how their experiences have changed their attitudes and approaches towards improvisation.

Through these perspectives, one can see how technological constraints and aesthetic ideals interact to create a variety of organizational approaches for laptop orchestras, and how these approaches in turn affect the musical lives of the participants. While these ensembles will not likely cause improvisation to become a dominant mode of operation in academic music, they constitute another step in the continued development of improvisation as a respected and sanctioned musical practice.

Available Files

  • Practices_in_Laptop_Orchestras_.pdf

    997 KB | application/pdf


If people talked the way they drummed in improvisation, then I think the world would be a lot nicer…

– Youth participant, ICASP improvisation workshop