Laptop Orchestra at the Kennedy Center
Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:08PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 13, 2008

ko_ishikawa.jpgMuch promise, little payoff: That's been the story of computer music for most of the past few decades. But the development of immensely powerful laptops is one of the most exciting developments in contemporary music; performers can transform sound in ear-bending ways unimaginable only a few years ago, and do it onstage, in real time. For composers, it's a world exploding with possibilities.

Out on the bleeding edge of the new technology is the Tokyo-based Laptop Orchestra, which brought a minimalist, sometimes difficult but stunningly beautiful work to the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab on Monday night. Composed by the group's director, Philippe Chatelain, "1(000) Breath(s)" takes the sound of a sho -- a traditional Japanese mouth organ, played by Ko Ishikawa -- and transforms it through a network of six laptops into a meta-instrument of extraordinary scope and scale.

laptop_orch1.jpgIt's an intriguing way to ground technology with the human breath, where music (and this piece) began. Playing in almost total darkness and surrounded by huge flat-screen monitors, Ishikawa and the orchestra slowly built sustained tones into a radiant cloud of sound, projected from speakers around the theater. It was severe, demanding music, with the sounds of the sho transformed into a "noise music" palette of clicks, roars and sudden waves of static. Stripped of conventional narrative and drama, even emotion, this was music pared to a Zenlike purity; and by the end, you felt as if you'd been in a strange but beguiling landscape, blown by a godlike wind.

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