Room 311 of Cullimore Hall may not fit the image of a techno band’s garage studio, but to the dozen members of the NJIT Laptop Orchestra, who just released their first CD, it’s perfecto.Although none of the dozen guys were ever music majors and half of them will graduate in two weeks at the Prudential Center, making computerized music may have arguably become their most memorable college experience.
The orchestra just released its first compact disc of live electronic sounds and is practicing for its first concert today May 2, 2011 at 1 p.m. in the Campus Center Atrium. “The music sounds as if it could only appear in the 21st century,” said David Rothenberg, a professor in the humanities department, who directs the ensemble. (ATTENTION EDITORS: To attend the concert, visit the semester’s last May 4 class or receive a CD, contact Sheryl Weinstein, 973-596-3436.)
Gil Bento of Howell, who soon starts a job with Credit Suisse, will return part-time next semester for a master’s degree program at NJIT’s School of Management while volunteering to stay on as the orchestra’s business manager. He wants to understand better how to market music in today’s changing world.
Web guru Anthony Zaleski, of Bayonne, another graduating senior, majoring in technical communications, plans to stay in touch. Zaleski is the brains and eyes behind the orchestra’s website and wildly colorful and engaging CD album graphics.
Graduating senior Kevin Ram, of Teaneck, an electrical and computing engineer, says the class encourages creativity. “In an engineering school where everything is about formulas, this class was a welcome opportunity.” Marcus Williams, of Williamstown, has created a niche as the late night impresario of the “NJIT Beat Society.” Six or more new laptop musicians join him for weekly sessions to invent hip hop beats. He wants a career in the music business. As for Daniel Ovalle, of Hopatcong, who graduates this coming December, the class has turned his life upside down. He foresees a future career in television production. For now, though, he’s fulfilling a childhood dream. “Growing up, my family didn’t have the money to buy musical instruments,” he said. “Now I see how easy it is to make music with an inexpensive toy recorder and a $40 ukulele.”
For anyone who is by now mildly curious as to how a group of electrical engineers, mathematicians and technical communications majors trying to fulfill a few humanities credits came to love John Cage, think Ableton Live. .
“Many professional musicians use this software program,” said Rothenberg, himself, a professional clarinetist. “I asked students to buy the $99 Intro version.” The popular musical software program allows users to manipulate sound clips, create imaginary electronic instruments and rhythmic patterns from their computer keyboards. Rothenberg encourages improvisation by combining samples of spoken words, environmental sounds, virtual synthesizers and drum machines.
Rothenberg says that even for his students who might never again make computer music, he expects the experience to leave them with a newfound sense of camaraderie.
“Look at any college campus across America today,” he said. “You’ll see students everywhere with their noses buried in their laptops. They are Facebooking, Googling, studying, but not interacting with the people sitting right next to them. But plug a speaker into that computer, load up some sounds, and start jamming. The laptop is instantly transformed into a musical instrument, and students can jam together once again. It seems like an easy gesture but it’s really a radical social experiment—getting students to interact and make music together using this machine that has come to dominate our lives.”
Students recorded, mixed, and designed the whole CD package and arranged its manufacture. The CD is available through iTunes, Amazon, and in record stores through CDBaby.com. With this process they gain direct experience of the music business in today’s digital age. Next year Rothenberg hopes to put on a conference of laptop orchestras at NJIT. For more information about the group and the project, please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNDbw53vdG8.