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Clash, Then Synthesis: Joys of a Laptop Jam  ]

by Johanna Jainchill Thursday, July 10 2003

Photo by Stephen M. Paredes for The New York Times.

In a jam at Openair, an East Village bar, Michael Berk played a digital synthesis of his multi-instrumental sounds.

IN his native West Virginia, George Cicci arouses curiosity when he gets on stage at local open-mike events and turns out beats on his iBook laptop between sets of bluegrass guitarists and rockabilly bands. While the crowd is always receptive to the innovative sounds he mixes, he says, he is still the only laptop musician around.

Last month he found a community of kindred spirits in Manhattan, where he was a featured guest at Openair, an East Village bar where dozens of laptop artists play together each week in an open jam session.

Openair is an indistinct lounge at 121 St. Marks Place with tinted windows and no sign. The door is barely noticeable but for a few smokers gathered outside. Yet every Sunday starting at 5 p.m., the bar draws performers with laptops in tow to share their musical and visual creations, composed or improvised.

"It's not far from a traditional music jam where people bring instruments and play together in a band," said Geoff Matters, 26, one of the event's founders. "It's just that the instruments people are using are software and hardware tools."

Daniel Vatsky, a regular, is grateful for the opportunity. "I wasn't performing before I came here," he acknowledged between sips of beer at the lounge, his Apple Power Mac G4 in front of him and a tangle of wires at his feet that connect the laptop to the club's sound system. "It's a really unique place because even if you're just starting out you can come and play with live musicians. It's important you're not just putting on a track you already know. You're constantly being thrown a curveball."

Jon H. Appleton, director of the electro-acoustic music graduate program at Dartmouth College, describes laptop music as "a kind of electronic music using new sounds and ambient textures.''

"People can just pick up and do it just using the software," he said. Laptop music may have an aggressive beat that sounds warped and filtered, or the atmospheric outer-space effect of ambient music; like electronica, it borrows samples from many different styles of music. When a group starts playing, the sound can be jarringly cacophonous because it takes a while for the performers to get in sync with one another.

Most of those attending the weekly event, called Share, are performers rather than viewers or listeners. As Mr. Appleton put it, laptop music can be "strange for the listener" because "the performers understand what they're doing, but the audience doesn't." The visual element can therefore help. Some of those taking part, like Mr. Vatsky, are V.J.'s - computer artists who use computers to mix images that are projected on screens in a synthesis with the music.

MONTAGE - Nicholas Kent looped multilayered audio samples and added his own synthesizer music to it. Photo by Stephen M. Paredes for The New York Times

Rich Panciera, a laptop musician known as Lloop, started the weekly party two years ago with Mr. Matters and another friend, Daniel Smith, a computer musician known as Newclueless who is also the bar manager at Openair. They intended to start a laptop club to trade ideas and music applications, and they express amazement at the way the night evolved.

"We call this our pretty little weed patch," Mr. Panciera said. "It just grows on its own. You give it a little tending and everyone who participates benefits, because you pool experiences and resources. It's really blossomed into a very community-driven thing."

The participants, predominantly male, mostly use Macintosh laptops, although Mr. Smith, a Briton with a ponytail, noted a "smattering" of Windows PC's. Attendance varies from 25 to 100, with more people turning out to hear featured guests. Share's popularity has been boosted mostly by word of mouth and its live Web broadcast of the Sunday event at

Mr. Cicci, the West Virginian, praised his experience at Share, where he and Chris Coleman, a V.J. he met at West Virginia University, perform live under the name Finder. Mr. Coleman analyzes and makes visual images of Mr. Cicci's beats and sounds, always aiming for innovation.

"Nobody else has any of these sounds on their hard drives or in their samples, anywhere in the world," said Mr. Cicci, who chiefly uses Live, an audio software program from Ableton, to create and mix his sounds. "That's what we really go for. We just take a basic wave form and build on it and build on it and build on it until it's our own."

Finder was a featured act on a night when Pixelache, a group of Finnish computer artists from an audiovisual laboratory in Helsinki, came to promote its audiovisual projects. Juha Huuskonen, the group's organizer, who had heard about Share from a Webcast, said it was in line with his own group's work.

"The important thing is that they are creating the sound and the video together as performers," he explained. "It's a symbiotic situation."
Mr. Huuskonen said he was pleased that some participants had developed their own software, as people in his laboratory have. "People don't want off-the-shelf solutions," he said.

Mr. Matters, for instance, helped develop a music performance and D.J. mixing software called GDAM, which uses filters and effects to continuously recreate and modify sounds. (He performs under the name geoffGDAM.)

"I'll be playing something that sounds very close to the original, but it will be rearranged into a shuffling beat rather than a straight beat," he said. "Or it will be backwards to forwards or cut in and out on the beat. The noise is almost entirely removed from the original source material."

Eric Redlinger, a V.J. identifiable at Share by his ever-present backward cap, said the Openair event had inspired similar sessions in Amsterdam, Berlin and Bordeaux, France, and that others were planned in Boston and San Francisco. The appeal of the party is its openness, he said. "There's a democratizing factor to what we do," he said. "Anyone can walk in."