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Stanford unveils laptop orchestra

April 27, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Stanford University now has its own laptop orchestra. Instead of instruments, the musicians play computers. Their first public concert -- and only the second one anywhere -- took place late Saturday.

"We have here 20 stations," explains conductor Ge Wang, "each of which has a laptop and a speaker array. Each speaker array has 6 channels of sound. You put that together, that's 120 channels of sound, plus 4 subwoofers for low energy. And that's spread out back here all over the garden. If you walk just 10 feet from you, you're in a totally different sonic space."

Ge Wang is probably the only computer conductor in the world. He also wrote the music programming language, called ChucK. Each key represents a note. But the tilt of a MacBook notebook can change the sound, too. "This means to actually tilt the laptop left and right," he instructs me, mimicking the rocking of a baby in his arms. And, as he straightens out his elbow to point at the orchestra, "This means to tilt the laptop forward."

Even the trackpad is used like a violin bow. "It's also dependent on how I bow it with the trackpad," says performer Jeff Cooper, as he demonstrates. "The harder I do it... and then you can also change the key."

Some musicians even double up, as Patricia Martinez & Marisol Jimenez did.

"And we can do a fight in the middle of the piece," says Patricia. "No, no! I want to do that!"

Two dozen special speakers like this one were constructed just for the concert. It looks like an upside down salad bowl... because it is. The enclosures were assembled from salad bowls found at the local Ikea. The only previous concert, at Princeton was indoors. Out in a Stanford Sculpture Garden, the small audience and performers experienced something surreal.

"My favorite part is definitely the gamalan piece," says performer Dianan Siwiak.

Want sums it up this way: "The computer has afforded us vast new possibilities in terms of new sounds, new timbres. We are still kind of in the beginning. We're still figuring out what kind of beast the laptop orchestra really is and how to compose for it."

Well, in the key of C, of course -- for computer.

The formal debut of Stanford's Laptop Orchestra takes place on a stage this Tuesday in Dinkelspiel Auditorium at 8 p.m.

------- Links -------
Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) -- Also for ticket information

ChucK, the music programming language.

Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics Stanford University


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