We routinely talk about how the interface paradigm of a computer — screen, QWERTY, trackpad – isn’t optimal for music. But how many of you have, in a pinch, done a live laptop set with just your computer, and found some way to make it work? The Stanford University Laptop Orchestra, set to play this year’s Macworld, natch, is making the most of what it has:

“We tilt the notebook and use its built-in accelerometer to expressively control sound. We use the trackpad as a kind of violin bow,” explains Ge Wang, SLOrk’s founder. ”You can make some wild, diverse music with the MacBook.”

And why not? Designing expressive interfaces can pay off in something that’s satisfying, absolutely. But however you decide to play, a lot of it comes down to how you approach an object compositionally and musically. So, there’s two ways to look at this: on one level, it’s a novelty, and while to most of us seeing people playing behind Apple logos is nothing new, I’m sure Apple enjoys seeing a swarm of their machines. But on another, the real point is that the Stanford orchestra is getting the most mileage out of the machine. Trackpad? Check. Accelerometer? Keyboard? (Why stop there – Apple Remote? Webcam?) You’ve got quite a lot on the laptop itself to use.

We’ve looked at laptop orchestras before, but here’s still more:

Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk): Musical Macs [Story for Apple Pro by Dustin Driver]


Via: Stanford’s MacBook orchestra exposed [distorted-loop.com] and Macworld maestro Paul Kent’s Twitter.


Laptop Orchestras Proliferate, from Princeton to Moscow

How to Record Laptop Performances – And Make Them Sound Live (linking to a story on the topic I wrote for Keyboard Magazine)

And for the mother of modern laptop orchestras, recently winning a MacArthur Foundation grant, see PLOrk at Princeton

  • Amt8

    Great, Standford discovered a new way to waste money doing non-music.

    I will never understand how can somebody buy that kind of stuff…I bet the professor in charge thinks he's doing pure art…when in fact the only thing they are doing is playing ramdonly with audio tools with zero musical meaning.

  • The most versatile AND practical minimalist setup that I've used is a laptop along with an iPhone controller. The iPhone controller apps available now, such as TouchOSC give you all the different control surfaces you'd need to play a live set – faders, pads, keys, buttons, etc. Some physical hardware is always nice but in terms of having a production lab that fits in a backpack you can't beat it.

  • Michael Una

    Although with less vitriol, I will agree with Amt8- I'd like to see this concept used to make listenable music. Anybody can squonk and squeak and you don't need an expressive controller to do it.

    These are powerful tools, and they deserve to be applied with breadth and depth.

  • Actually, the Laptop Orchestra was pioneered while Ge Wang was at Princeton, so while SLOrk's getting soe press now, it should still be noted that PLOrk was the originating… uhm, Ork?

    And Amt8, there is actually a technological focus here as well as a musical one. While they use laptops as performance instruments, they also write their own software to make the laptops behave in unique ways for each piece.

    In fact, the Ge Wang developed the ChucK programming language (with others, of course) specifically for this environment, and he's quite a nice and sensible guy.

    Sonically, SLOrk does something I've never quite experienced before. Not all of their pieces are great in terms of replayability, but they are all interesting and sound quite nice in a live setting.

    Realize that each performer has his/her own laptop and speaker set up, so that sound comes from all different parts of the room like in a traditional orchestra, not just a stereo FOH mix like most live electronic music.

  • Having taught college students (and not so long ago, been one), I think encouraging them to make sound is good. I don't know how PLOrk and SLOrk work exactly, but I do know I learned a huge amount from the (acoustic) improv ensemble I was part of at Sarah Lawrence, directed by John Yannelli. We would always stop and analyze the stuff we were playing, to try to make it better. So absolutely, it's good to be critical. But we also learned from some of the stuff we did that sounded awful as well as the stuff that sounded good.

    Anyway, my point is, they're using their available inputs. You ought to be able to do that to make music that, to you, is listenable. (Well, heck, hopefully a lot *better* than just listenable!)

  • @Kevin – I should have added the other links, just did. Now, PLOrk may have been the first "ork" but certainly students were doing computer performance in academia much earlier, including in ensembles. Still, nice to have the army of laptops. 🙂

  • 4lefts

    i like this, as a performance paradigm rather than necessarily for the music they produce. i like the idea of using the laptop as an instrument (not as a thing for running software which is an instrument), and of aiding that use by having a (decent) speaker. i think kevin's points about it being a live performance are good as well – i'd probably enjoy it too. i suspect it would make less sense if you just listened to an mp3 of it in your room.

    it's also probably worth remembering that this kind of experimentation has a way of filtering into the mainstream. you may not want to listen to it now, but i wouldn't be surprised if some of their ideas become aspects of common practice in years to come. we'll see.

  • "Anybody can squonk and squeak and you don’t need an expressive controller to do it."

    Personally I find that basically any sound can become interesting as soon as you add a expressive controller to it, then practice. The most interesting sounds, on the other hand, can quickly become stale and boring to my ear without expressive control.

    So; IMHO, you are right; one doesn't *need* to but things become much better once you do.

  • Baek Chang

    @Michael Una

    I was a part of Slork when it first started in the spring 2008. Some of the actual "music" is academic nonsense that I didn't really enjoy. The ones I enjoyed the most were the compositions the actual students composed. A lot of us were not composers, just students who liked music.

    Here is a youtube video of a composition I did for slork. I think it is somewhat listenable and isn't trying to academic in any sense.


  • Adam Smith

    I've achieved similar results by writing complex multilayered patches on a Korg Karma,Absynth Vsti,and Albino,then sitting on my keyboard controller and randomly switching between presets.Writing your name in the piano roll of any decent sequencer achieves a similar level of cacophony.

    Was it musical?

    Use your Postmodern filtering system to decide.

    In principle Plork,Slork and others of their metier provide an interesting conceptual framework,in practise the results are somewhat underwhelming.When the practioners involved become less enamoured with their tools and more inspired by how their tools can be directed then we will have something of genuine worth.

  • JohnG

    The biggest innovation in this for me is the fact that every musician has their own localised sound source (hemisphere speaker), and so at least in theory in a live setting there is a natural sense of depth and localisation of sound. This doesn't happen when you get a load of guys going through a PA system. It is for me the thing that distinguishes the laptop orchestras from a 'traditional' laptop ensemble.

    That is also one of the many reasons why there is such a difference between hearing an acoustic orchestra recorded and actually going to see them play, the sound just can't be reproduced on a stereo system.

  • jon

    tools cannot be expressive, people can.

    also to echo amt8, I can't believe people still buy these nebulous claims of "instantly make these boundless sounds you never dreamed of on the horizons of endless beauty freedom" BS. I guess there's always going to be a generation of people who will learn that there are no shortcuts….

    a thought: 'traditional' instruments have repertoire that guides students through the sometimes painfully boring work of learning the craft. it serves as a continuing incentive, as well as an introduction to the language. what is the equivalent here?

  • Chris Conover

    I saw the story on the Apple website and then came here and have been checking out SLOrk. Its really interesting that Apple would feature a story about a group who uses Macbooks to run firewire audio interfaces (MOTU UltraLite) after firewire was recently removed from the Macbook line. I know the white macbook option still exists, but as we move into the future it seems apparent that Apple will be separating the product lines by leaving out firewire on the "consumer" notebooks. In theory this would make academic laptop orchestras more difficult to fund due to the cost of the Macbook Pro when compared to the cheaper Macbook. At the same time I wonder if USB 3 will be used for audio interfaces. Any thoughts?

  • JohnG

    Well that's another topic altogether, but I would be amazed if the next line of Macbooks don't include USB 3 if the standard is available soon. I think it's backwards compatible anyway.

  • JohnG

    Although according to Ars Technica we won't be seeing usb 3 devices for another year 😐

  • Paco

    Seems to be a lot of cranky geezers on here. "jon" even seems to be unware of the title of the site or has perhaps not read any of the articles here ever.

    I think everyone was thrown off because the local news story video was really lame, especially the announcer. I think, that while not particularly new, its an interesting and good thing. Also I didn't even hear anything that I would come close to describing as "noise." I was actually disappointed by its apparent actual form as a symphony.

    And anyway that video didn't even really give us a chance to really hear their music at all. you guys must have some secret gnostic knowledge about them or something. Man…

  • Paco; "Seems to be a lot of cranky geezers on here. “jon” even seems to be unware of the title of the site or has perhaps not read any of the articles here ever.

    I think everyone was thrown off because the local news story video was really lame, especially the announcer."

    Yeah, I think so. It's also regrettable that it wasn't mentioned how Plork & Slork are (partially) experiments in teaching and that a lot of the musicians may never have programmed or played music before they joined. If you look at the final projects (in ChucK code) turned in by Plork members I think those are of unexpectedly high quality if we take that into account.

    It's sad how most context was removed and how we only got to hear very short fragments but I suppose that's how "news" works these days.

  • jon

    im neither cranky or a geezer. I just don't think "expressive" is a characteristic of a musical instrument, rather it is a characteristic of a particular performance. many things come together to make something expressive. a violin in the wrong hands is no more expressive than a slide whistle, a casio keyboard, or a laptop.

  • Jon, I agree to some degree, even if I still like that usage of the word. I'd also call a good pocket-knife "versatile" even if it's of course worthless without a creative user.

    This is why I used the word "practice" above. Sadly the linked articles/advertisements place most emphasis on how the technology (and the product) enables the musical results and very little on the creativity and hard work of the users. Obviously Apple is a company that needs to sell products and forced to put the emphasis there; no matter how much they'd probably like to, you can't sell creativity and hard work (to be clear; I feel the same way about many companies).

    I think the chapter on working with Plork in Ge's thesis will be much more interesting to CDM readers, whom I think will already know that you can use a keyboard to trigger sounds, regardless of the brand or OS.


  • jon

    I don't know if the pocket knife analogy holds. A pocketknife is indeed still versatile without a user. Is a swiss-army knife more versatile than a regular pocket knife? I'd say so.

    Expressive is not the same as versatile. In fact, I think "versatile" would be a better use here, and in many instances where "expressive" is used to describe instruments/software/tools.

    I can call a performer expressive. I can call a piece of music expressive. I can't call a macbook expressive. versatile? sure.

  • i also agree with the appraisal of the news piece. my first thought was that it's a pity a piece about music is so uninteresting musically.

    and often when i watch pieces about new electronic music its drones and random sounds. where's the william tell overture of electronic music? rhythm seems to be one of the things missing in many of these pieces.

    that said however, i really enjoyed the vid Baek Chang pointed to. it showed how enjoyable the process seemed to be, and as others have pointed out, that this is primarily a learning/teaching process, not just a musical endeavor. i love the fact that people are getting a chance to explore new territory like this. that's awesome.

  • zinoff

    man, why do they all dress in black?

  • @zinoff: one of the age-old questions of all musicians. 😉

  • Baek Chang

    @ zinoff

    It was for some wack network concert with china, we had to impress the camera and look "professional". I think slork has great potential, if it wasn't so focused on getting media attention. But I guess that is what up and coming things need to do to get funding and continue to do what they do.

  • zenartist

    I am most interested in how to make the speaker arrays.. I found links with pics but no technical data on what/how exactly they are made.. anyone have a link?

  • 4lefts

    +1. ich wants.

  • Baek Chang

    There really isn't any documentation on how to make the speaker arrays. There should be tho. We used these wooden Ikea salad bowls and used hole saws to drill into them. The speakers were drilled/screwed into the bowls. 6 jacks were put into a slender piece of sheet metal. We used 3 stereo t-amps and put those into the bowl and closed up the bottom with another piece of wood and screwed them shut. I think theres a video somewhere that shows us drilling and putting together the speaker arrays.

  • I was in Slork, and can almost be seen in that news footage. It's a very academic process. My music that I make is very commercial, but I don't think there's anything wrong with what we were doing in Slork. One of the biggest things I think, that can't be conveyed through any videos, is the surrounding sound that's created by 20 different speaker arrays. That clicking they showed in that news piece sounded great in that space. We also performed in open spaces. It was more about the spatialization of the sounds in a lot of those pieces then the sounds themselves. Also, Baek's pieces was one of the best next to mine 🙂

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