Laptop concert linking Stanford and Beijing signals world has changed


By Richard Scheinin

Mercury News

Article Launched: 04/30/2008 03:55:21 PM PDT

Do you remember the Jefferson Airplane doing a tune called "Fat Angel" in 1968? It was recorded live at the Fillmore (whether in San Francisco or New York wasn't clear from the album jacket), and the lyrics went like this: "Fly Translove Airways, gets you there on time." Very trippy, very mesmerizing, very new. You listened and knew the world was changing.

Tuesday night at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, there was a concert titled "Pacific Rim of Wire," and, 40 years after "Fat Angel," it evoked similar feelings of mesmerizing newness. It was a night of electro-acoustic, trans-global music-making: Musicians at Dinkelspiel (the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, as well as players on traditional concert instruments) were literally - via the Internet, in real time - performing with musicians in China (on a smaller array of electronic and acoustic instruments).

The musicians in this "networked performance" - part of Stanford's ongoing Pan-Asian Music Festival - could see one another, hear one another and respond musically to one another. The 200 or so listeners in Dinkelspiel could watch and hear not only the musicians on stage, but the musicians in China (6,000 miles distant and 15 hours ahead of California), whose images were projected on a giant screen at the rear of the stage. The small audience at Beijing University could see and hear everything happening in Dinkelspiel.

The combined sounds of two continents droned and pulsed, highly ritualistic, at times gorgeous, unfolding like electronic flowers, full of new moods and colors and tonalities - and, occasionally, they were a mishmash.

Still, the players were communing across the planet: This was the real Translove Airways.

I can't say that Dinkelspiel is "the new Fillmore" - where all this goes is totally up in the air, and, besides, I'm a neophyte with this music.

But as was the case in the '60s, what happened Tuesday night was about more than the music. It raised basic questions: What does it mean to "be here," when here is there, and there is here? For that matter, what does it mean "to see" in this age of Skype and networked performances? After all, the musicians in China were seeing us, literally, and we were seeing them.

The concert was as much a technical as a musical coup, and the folks at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) deserve credit for instigating and carrying it off in conjunction with the technical people in Beijing - who could be seen sipping bottled water and waving to the Dinkelspiel crowd during the performance.

For me, the concert was reminiscent of the large-ensemble, free jazz concerts I used to attend in New York in the early '70s. There were similarly exhilarating and ridiculous elements to the music then and now, along with a sense of testing new ideas, blurring lines between improvisation and composition, while contending with limited rehearsal time and, for some of the performers, a lack of technique masked by absolute audaciousness.

The first half of Tuesday's concert - which happened only at Dinkelspiel; the trans-global connection came after intermission - was mostly performed by the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (known as SLOrk). Twenty undergrads and graduate students sat on meditation cushions in front of their MacBooks, which, for each piece, were programmed to create entirely new rhythms, colors, textures, sounds.

Ge Wang, the orchestra's 30-year-old founder and conductor, led with an arsenal of slow-mo Tai Chi-like gestures: you could watch him sculpt the ensemble sounds, move them from one side of the stage to the other, cueing various players to add or subtract musical ingredients.

"Drone," by Dan Trueman, turned SLOrk into an electronic bellows. "Take it for Granite," by Perry R. Cook, was amazing: A crowd of African drummers seemed to inhabit the stage, thickly polyrhythmic. "TBA," a shot at on-the-fly coding and group improvisation, never gathered steam. But Wang's own "Crystalis" turned the hall into a whooshing wind canyon on Mars.

Intermission was a trip: The Dinkelspiel stage was empty, but you could hear the musicians warming up in Beijing. And see them: two flutists wearing headphones; a soprano; a master of the erhu, a bowed two-string fiddle; and a woman playing a pipa, an upright lute-like instrument.

Soon the Dinkelspiel stage filled with the laptoppers and acoustic musicians on French horn, cello and the like. With the quintet in China, they performed part of "In C" by Terry Riley. A landmark minimalist composition from 1964, it should sound like sunshine, a fine-spun web of pulsations; this was ragged.

But what followed, "Improvisation Telematica," was exceptional. At Stanford, CCRMA director Chris Chafe played the celletto, essentially an electronic cello (fingerboard, but no body) of his invention. In Beijing, there was Yu Hongmei, the erhu virtuoso, and Bruce Gremo, on an electronic flute-plus-software contraption. The trio's music, created from scratch, was partly sweet pentatonicism, partly double-stopped Bach and partly an echo of Jimi Hendrix's dive-bombing "Machine Gun."

It was pure cultural fusion, and it worked. The night ended with "Tuning Meditations" by electro-acoustic guru Pauline Oliveros - who could be seen watching the proceedings, from France, on a big screen at the side of the auditorium.

Now the players and audiences improvised together, in California and Beijing, each person singing long tones, "tuning" himself or herself to the person in the next seat, building up overtones, droning and Om-ing, a big yoga shout across the Internet. Fly Translove Airways.

Contact Richard Scheinin at or (408) 920-5069