Blending Technology and Talent

The Frost School Laptop Ensemble performs at the Smithsonian DC/ACC Festival of Creativity and Innovation.
By Jennifer Sanchez

The Frost School Laptop Ensemble performs at the Smithsonian DC/ACC Festival of Creativity and Innovation.

Blending Technology and Talent

By Jennifer Sanchez
Students in the Laptop Ensemble at the Frost School of Music are among the first in the country to use laptops as their primary performance instruments to create contemporary masterpieces.

When walking through the lush grounds of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, you hear exactly what you’d expect from one of the nation’s top music schools. Voices seamlessly drift through the soft breeze, brass instruments play scales during warm-ups, and somewhere a pianist is playing classical Beethoven concertos that make you feel as though the composer himself is present. 

Nestled among the instrumental classics, contemporary musical masterpieces—products of the Frost Laptop Ensemble—can also be heard. Since 2012, students in the Contemporary Media Performance Studio (CMP) have worked to blend technology and talent, and create harmonious sounds, textures, and synergies with virtual instruments.

Equipped with laptops and various MIDI controllers as their primary tools, the multi-talented group of students are not to be confused with the typical club DJs. According to Joe Abbati, studio director of the CMP Program and lecturer in the Music Engineering Program at the Frost School, the students in the Laptop Ensemble study new ways to perform and produce electronic music in innovative ways—which means real-time improvisation and solos, emotive expression with sound via contemporary musical interfaces.

In fact, while the students use their laptops as their primary instruments in the Ensemble, most have also mastered a traditional performance instrument and as part of their music degree are required to play in addition to their private lessons.

“When co-creator and fellow Frost faculty member, Rey Sanchez and I launched the CMP program, we wanted to combine the power of modern music making tools—which can generate an infinite number of sounds—with talented musicians. The synergy allows for real time musical expression, whether it be melodic or rhythmic, and there really are no limits to sounds that can be designed and performed,” said Abbati. 

As a composer, sound designer, audio director, programmer and producer, he knows first-hand that the mix of music and technology can create opportunities that extend far beyond a festival stage. Technically, a musician and music engineer by training, Abbati’s resume is nothing short of impressive. With high-profile contributions to electronic music scene, he has witnessed the evolution of what many call electronic dance music (EDM) in Miami and around the world.

“Whenever I tell anyone I make electronic music, they say, ‘oh, you’re a DJ or you make EDM.’ It’s a heavy stereotype, but the EDM genre has led to a very profitable environment for many artists,” added Abbati.

Over the last 20 years teaching in the Music Engineering Technology Program at Frost, Abbati has witnessed many captivating performances and student successes. Among them is Connor Golden, a junior in Frost’s Music Engineering Program. 

Prior to his time at UM, Golden spent years focusing on classical piano and choir. While he credits his love of music to his beginnings, his focus has shifted slightly and his experiences in the world of music engineering and technology have broadened.

As a member of the Laptop Ensemble, Golden is dedicated to his craft and is constantly progressing toward his goals of perfecting the performance and sound design capabilities of the LinnStrument. As a somewhat new addition to the musical technology scene, the LinnStrument resembles a key-tar (keyboard, guitar combination) but according to Golden it has limitless capabilities when it comes to creating music.

“The possibilities of the LinnStrument are endless and I know I have only scratched the surface of what is possible,” said Golden. “To me, the instrument is more than a musical tool, but also a source of therapy through difficult times.”

So far this year, the hard work of Golden and the Laptop Ensemble has paid off and the group has had a few opportunities to showcase their talents on the road.

In October, the Ensemble was selected to perform at the ACCelerate Festival held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Focused on creativity and innovation, the festival featured performances, conversations, and 48 interactive installations from across the 15 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schools on thematic areas such as Art and Technology, Sustainability and Environment, Health and Body and Biomimetics. Additionally, during the first week of the spring semester, the group performed solo and ensemble compositions center stage during at the annual fundraising event at Miami’s Frost Science Museum. 

From Abbati’s view, evolution of music and technology isn’t slowing down anytime soon and the live performances have helped the students reach audiences outside of the UM community.

“The sound design and production that goes into a Laptop Ensemble performance happens long before our student musicians take the stage, said Abbati. “As electronic musicians, the group has an understanding of sound that extends far beyond a performance and I look forward to seeing how their talents will shape the future of music. Most people associate electronic music with a DJ type performance and that may soon be ancient history.”

As the electronic music genre continues to mature on domestic soil, Abbati is hopeful that the association with EDM will fade and the magically gifted students mastering the technology behind the music will prevail.