Laptop orchestras bridge the distance


By Richard Scheinin

Mercury News

Article Launched: 04/28/2008 01:30:32 AM PDT

A couple of dozen Stanford music students lie flat on their stomachs or kneel on cushions in a campus rehearsal space, eyes fixed on laptop computer screens.

The room fills with what sounds like a humming chorus of tuned water-bowls; actually, it's the computer-generated equivalent. Conductor Ge Wang, gesturing, seems to push the pulsing chorus from one side of the orchestra to the other, as the musicians stroke the keys of their MacBooks.

On Tuesday, they will perform - in real time, via the Internet, in front of a live audience at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium - with musicians from Beijing University, 6,000 miles distant. With the aid of giant video screens, both groups will hear, watch and play along with each other.

Forty years after the Beatles, this is the real magical mystery tour: global music-making without setting foot in a bus or on a plane. And love is no longer all you need; what's needed is high-quality streaming audio, along with Internet2 video-networking in the service of music.

The concert by Stanford's Laptop Orchestra, part of Stanford's two-week Pan-Asian Music Festival, is truly of the valley. "We want to play with people all over the world," says Beijing-born Wang, 30, a leading composer of music for laptops and assistant professor at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). "But we can't always be in the same room with them. So this is a way of bridging the distance: socially, musically, and technologically. It's about being really far apart and yet really playing music in a close sense at the same time."

Since 2000, when musicians at separate campus venues performed together via high-definition, multi-channel audio networking, CCRMA researchers have extended the notion of the trans-global jam session. The SoundWIRE project, directed by Chris Chafe, a composer and cellist and the center's director, has fashioned real-time performances allowing musicians at Stanford to see and hear their collaborators in Canada, France, South Korea, Scandinavia and Singapore.

But they have never before established "interconnectivity" with musicians in China. Coming right before the Olympics, the performance has news value. But, for Chafe, it's something more than that: "It's the merging of the consciousness of two collectives," he says. "It's an appropriate use of the medium."

The program includes "In C" by Terry Riley, a masterpiece of minimalism, composed in 1964. Its pulse as steady as electric current, it may as well have been written for this post-modern collaboration, which will include Hongmei Yu, a master of the erhu, the traditional two-string fiddle, in Beijing. Also on the program is "Tuning Meditations" by Pauline Oliveros, in which the American and Chinese audiences will join in singing the piece.

Laptop performances have been around since the '80s, when they became de rigueur in trend-setting clubs from L.A. to Berlin. But laptop orchestras are quite new. Wang co-founded the first one in 2005, at Princeton University, where he was a doctoral student in computer science. Stanford's laptop orchestra was founded by Wang just last year.

The music arises from an array of small speakers, and becomes a sort of electronic chamber music, full of color and detail and allowing the players to hear one another.

Each of the orchestra's speakers has been fashioned by the students from an IKEA salad bowl, high-end car speakers and an amplifier kit. That level of ingenuity is part and parcel of Wang's music. Writing new software for each composition, he turns the laptop, each time, into a new instrument, or a new set of instruments.

Contact Richard Scheinin at