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Q&A: Brooks Frederickson on Duke Laptop Ensemble, the newest music group on campus

Brooks Frederickson is a sixth-year doctoral candidate in music composition at Duke. He studies music and technology, specifically digital music making, the affordances of digital software and the current (music) software environment today. He also runs the Duke Laptop Ensemble, which is part of the Duke Chamber Music program.

After the Laptop Ensemble’s first performance at Durham’s NorthStar Church of the Arts in October, The Chronicle spoke with Frederickson about his journey starting the ensemble and the support Duke has provided.This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: What exactly is a ‘laptop ensemble’?

Brooks Frederickson: I asked the ensemble members in the beginning of the semester, and everyone had a different answer. The most basic answer is that we’re a group of musicians and … we make music with laptops. The laptop is an infinitely flexible instrument, and that gives us the ability to make a huge variety of music.

TC: What kind of software and tools do you use on the laptop to make music?

BF: A lot of the early laptop ensembles were very expensive for institutions, because you had to buy specific software, everyone had to have the same software, everyone had to have the same hardware that could talk to each other, there had to be computers specifically designated for the laptop ensemble. But the model that I wanted to build [at] Duke was a lot different in the fact that I wasn't going to prescribe any specific software I was going to show the ensemble members. In technology and especially in music technology, there [are] so many incredible free tools that we can use to make music you know, on our phones or tablets or computers or whatever. I wanted to let people sort of come to what they came to [and] what ended up happening was a number of people using Ableton … what I use mostly for all my dissertation research. Some students are using Reaper, which is an excellent cross-platform, free, open-source digital audio workstation with an awesome community of users around it.

TC: Could you describe the genre your music would fall into?

BF: Our first concert was a little downtempo. A lot of the things were very fluid and evolving in terms of their textures and their harmonies. As the ensemble gets more comfortable with just playing as a group and just sort of existing, I could see things that are a little bit more like rhythmic—are a little bit more active—becoming a part of our repertoire as well.

TC: So how do you start an ensemble? 

BF: I'm able to do this because I have a Bass Digital Education fellowship for this semester. And with that you pitch projects to the Learning Innovations, and the project that I pitched to them was [Laptop Ensemble]. All the projects need to meet a certain criterion, which is they need to benefit the undergraduate and broader Duke community, and involved in digital learning, like sort of expanding learning into the digital realm. I pitched a laptop ensemble, as a way of being like, this is the thing that we don't have. It's a very contemporary way of thinking about and teaching music. They've been super supportive of this project. The music department was on board—especially Caroline Stinson, who runs the chamber music program. I approached her with the idea of having Laptop Ensemble in the Chamber Ensemble program. And she was super into it, which was awesome. So that means that we're listed under the same category as the student string quartet, saxophone quartet, piano trios, and stuff like that, which is, again, so awesome. And I take that seriously as like, we're a chamber group. I like to make the ensemble do chamber music exercises and listening exercises. 

TC: How did you meet your fellow members?

BF: Last year, I taught a music theory class that takes the traditional introduction to music theory class and moves it away from notes on staffs and moves it into Ableton … I had great students in those classes so I emailed all those students and said… I'd love to work with you all again. The Duke Daily email picked up a story about us and put it on the daily email at the beginning of the semester. So, students [also found] out about it that way. You know, there's, there's a cool undercurrent that I'm finding at Duke of students who make music sort of quietly by themselves, or they have a couple of friends that they make music with. And so word sort of got into that ecosystem and spread around a little bit.

TC: And apart from that, how many people do you have in your ensemble? How many of them are undergrads?

BF: In total, there's eight of us. So, me and seven other ensemble members. Three of us are graduate students, and then then five of us are undergrads.

TC: Where do you rehearse? Are people welcome to come watch you rehearse?

BF: We rehearse in the music building every Monday night. We'll tell you when to come listen to us. Our rehearsals are a sacred space. It's such a new ensemble and so, we try stuff and things fall flat, and things work. And it’s a space where we can just try ideas without people looking at us. It's so important for people to make music and make art without needing to show it to other people. I think today without getting super into social media stuff, it's so easy just to make something and post it quick, that people feel like they should be able to see everything you make. You should make for yourself, but then show people what you want to show them.

TC: What's your creative process from start to finish and coming up with a new piece?

BF: It comes from all different ways. At the beginning of the semester, I told the ensemble that we had a show coming up, and we need to make music for it. It can't be all my music, you know, because then it's the Brooks Fredrickson ensemble, and I don't want that. I just told the members to make ideas, and we would try them out. So, every rehearsal, people would come in with some different ideas. That person would then be in charge of rehearsal, and anything that they needed, we would make happen. And then we try things out and give feedback and have conversations around how we felt and maybe how the person who brought it in could talk to the group about how they envisioned it and where we were versus where they think it should be, and how we could bridge that gap.

TC: Do you have any thoughts on the music scene at Duke? Do you enjoy the music scene here?

BF: Yeah, I do. There's so many students who make music, in their dorms or apartments. And the bits that I've been able to see from that are super varied in terms of style, which I think is really exciting. It'd be really boring if everyone was trying to make the same music, but people are making pop songs, people are making trap music. People are DJing like, you know, sort of electronic music and things like that. Some people are making like, beautiful art music or experimental music. And it's really encouraging. As somebody who spent a lot of time in undergrad making music, it's encouraging for me to see students doing that here. Even if making music for you is just like punching buttons on your phone, and then it spits out a song. That's great. That's making. That's creating. Everyone should be doing that.  

Updates from the Duke Laptop Ensemble can be found on their Instagram.

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