Minnesota's World Stage

How about a little office music? Composer Jay Afrisando is all work and play

Jay Afrisando combines the traditional and technological in his interactive sound installation 'Exploring the Music of Your Office.'Galatia Puspa

May 06, 2019

Have you ever drummed your fingers impatiently on a laptop, mulling how to word an important email or waiting for a lazy download? If so, you have potentially been making music.

That is the main idea behind "Exploring the Music of Your Office," one of three projects in this year's Landmark to Lowertown, an annual series of events showcasing new works developed in the past year by Minnesota-based composers.

The man behind the "Music of Your Office" initiative is Jay Afrisando, an Indonesian composer and sonic artist who came to study at the University of Minnesota three years ago and is completing a doctorate in the music faculty.

Jay Afrisando
Minnesota composer Jay Afrisando plays his office-inspired work 'The (Real) Laptop Music :))' in a YouTube video.
Michael Duffy

The seed material for the "interactive sound installation" that Afrisando will curate 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 7 and 8 at the George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul is The (Real) Laptop Music :)), a piece that he created in 2017.

"In that piece, the laptop itself is the instrument, in this case a percussion instrument," Afrisando says.

The work's cellular, crosscutting structure was, he adds, partly inspired by the opening section of Lars von Trier's movie The Five Obstructions, where no one shot can last longer than 12 frames of film.

A YouTube video of The (Real) Laptop Music :)) shows a pair of hyperactively busy hands clicking, drumming, swishing and pummeling the keyboard and casing of a laptop, in a counterpoint of constantly chattering rhythms.

Afrisando dedicated the piece to "everyone who uses a laptop for working every day," and has expanded the concept of interesting sounds made by apparently mundane, everyday objects into the "Music of Your Office" project.

The range of office accoutrements used by Afrisando for his installation includes not only a computer keyboard and mouse, but also "a cacophonous external hard drive, a scratchy notebook, an old mobile phone and other everyday objects."

Anyone attending the installation can "play" this unusual collection of "instruments." The sounds they generate are captured by two microphones and fed to Afrisando's laptop, where they are processed using SuperCollider software and amplified to a pair of external speakers.

Enhancing the sounds of office objects in this way can elevate them from the prosaic level of background noise to what Afrisando calls "the main acoustic environment."

By some strange alchemy, the process of amplification and applying algorithms can result in music of genuine beauty and fascination, he adds.

"It can happen, and it's fun," he says. "The acoustics captured by microphones sound unique and different to what we are used to."

Although Afrisando's compositions are ultramodern and sit on the cutting edge of new technologies, he says he is often deeply influenced by the traditional music of his native Indonesia.

"For example, in west Sumatra there is a type of music called saluang jo dendang, which is traditionally played in the evening through dawn," he explains.

"The singers are accompanied by the saluang, a wind instrument played obliquely. That influenced me to create my work Blues Pulse, and also Gunung Singgalang for solo dulcimer."

Running like a silken thread through much of Afrisando's music is a belief that humans have gradually lost the art of listening carefully, and a desire "to induce people to be more and more sensitive to the sounds surrounding us."

That is not always easy.

"In the modern world the signal-to-noise ratio has risen greatly, with industrialization and other things," Afrisando says. "For many people, myself included, it has become difficult to perceive soft sounds — natural sounds like birds and crickets."

Rediscovering the ability to listen closely to the sounds that the world is making is critical to the future of our planet, he argues.

"By listening more closely, we can become more aware of our environment. We need that environment and the organisms other than humans in it. We should pay homage to it."

What better place to start than in the world of objects many of us spend hours surrounded by as we earn our daily living?

"I chose the 'Office Music' project because downtown St. Paul is full of business premises," he says. "So it fits the area."

What unexpected stories might a hitherto neglected laptop tell you? Is your cellphone harboring long-kept secrets it is keen to whisper?

"Exploring the Music of Your Office" is Afrisando's way of trying to answer these apparently flippant questions. If there is musical poetry hiding in the 21st-century workplace, he is on the hunt to find it.