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Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk): Research, Performance, Classroom

Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) Stanford University


In the paper, we chronicle the instantiation of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk), an ensemble of laptops, humans, hemispherical speaker arrays, interfaces, as well as mobile smart phones. Motivated to deeply explore computer-mediated live performance, SLOrk provides a platform for research, instrument design, sound design, new paradigms for composition and performance. It also offers a unique classroom. Founded in 2008, SLOrk was built from the ground-up by faculty and students at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), leveraging and combining the Center's nexus of disciplines. This document describes 1) how the founding members built the Stanford Laptop Orchestra from laptops, IKEA salad bowls, amplifier kits, car speakers, meditation mats and pillows, commodity input devices, and custom software, 2) the initial performances of SLOrk, including a large-scale outdoor concert, as well as a networked concert between Stanford and Beijing, and 3) the Stanford Laptop Orchestra as a classroom. We hope to present a history (and future) of the laptop orchestra.

I. Introduction

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) is a large-scale, computer-mediated ensemble that explores cutting-edge technology in combination with conventional musical contexts - while radically transforming both. Founded in 2008 by director Ge Wang and students, faculty, and staff at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), this unique ensemble comprises more than 20 laptops, human performers, controllers, and custom multi-channel speaker arrays designed to provide each computer meta-instrument with its own identity and presence. The orchestra fuses a powerful sea of sound with the immediacy of human music-making, capturing the irreplaceable energy of a live ensemble performance as well as its sonic intimacy and grandeur. At the same time, it leverages the computer's precision, possibilities for new sounds, and potential for fantastical automation to provide a boundary-less sonic canvas on which to experiment with, create, and perform music. 

Offstage, the ensemble serves as a one-of-a-kind learning environment that explores music, computer science, composition, and live performance in a naturally interdisciplinary way. It is also provides a unique research platform for exploring new performance paradigms, new instruments, as well as novel uses of technology. The Stanford Laptop Orchestra fully embodies the aesthetics of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) (cite XXX), both realizing its vision for an ensemble while extending it, and leveraging CCRMA's natural nexus of disciplines to explore new worlds. Like PLOrk, SLOrk uses the ChucK programming language (cite XXX) as its primary software platform for sound synthesis/analysis, instrument design, performance, and pedagogy.

In this document, we chronicle the adventures of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra from its instantiation to its current form. We describe the process by which over 30 faculty, students, and staff worked together to build the ensemble, starting with designing and building the SLOrk hemispherical speaker arrays out of wooden salad bowls, car speakers, amplifier kits, and many other spare parts, resulting in 20 speaker arrays presenting 120 independently addressable channels of audio. We also describe the ingredients of putting together SLOrk, from laptops, to breakfast tables, meditation mats and pillows, joysticks, wiimotes, MIDI controllers, etc.. In Section 4, we describe some of the major performances and the ideas behind them, including a large-scale outdoor concert, a live networked concert with musicians in Beijing, as well as an "electronic chamber music" performance featuring pieces by the members of the ensemble. We then discuss the SLOrk classroom, and conclude with a look to the future, including integration with MoPhO, the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra.

II. SLOrk Aesthetic and Related Work

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra embodies an aesthetic that is also central to the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (cite XXX), or PLOrk - the first ensemble of this kind, while fully leveraging CCRMA's natural intersection of disciplines (Music, Electrical Engineering, Cognition, Physical Interaction Design, Performance, and Computer Science, etc.) to explore new possibilities in research, musical performance, and education.

The SLOrk aesthetic is comprised of several components, one of which is "meta-instruments" coupled with speaker arrays that more closely approximates how traditional acoustic instruments radiates sound during performance, offering a much more intimate and localize sound sources. Another component of the aesthetic is that the ensemble is as much a laptop orchestra as it is a "laptop-human orchestra". Perhaps ironically, the sheer critical of technology in the laptop orchestra context increases the symbiotic and fundamental need for humans. Ensembles like PLOrk and SLOrk seek not to replace humans with computer, but rather find "sweet spots" that maximizes the specialties of each - computers with their precision, possibility for new sounds, and tireless nature, combined with the intentions, expressiveness, and social engagement of humans. In this sense, the laptop can be thought of as an entirely different race of being that can achieve great synergy with its human counterpart. Furthermore, SLOrk believes in the laptop orchestra as a potential new classroom for interdisciplinary, experiential learning, naturally combining music, sound synthesis and analysis, computer science, and live performance.

Additional laptop-mediated ensembles have also been emerging, including CMLO: Carnegie Mellon's Laptop Orchestra (cite XXX), MiLO: the Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra (cite XXX), the Worldscape Orchestra (cite XXX), with recent and upcoming ensembles in Tokyo, Moscow, Oslo and Bangkok. These ensembles each offer their vision on what a laptop orchestra can be. While these may be quite different from that of SLOrk (and PLOrk), it is consistent with the idea that a laptop orchestra is meant to be open-ended like the computer itself, and awaits human creativity to shape it and use it. Perhaps in this sense, the laptop orchestra is a "meta-orchestra" - a platform for crafting potentially many different laptop orchestras. It is perhaps in the wide range of possibilities that attract practitioners to computer music as an expressive medium, and therein also lies the difficulty, for the notion of constraints can be as important as potential, and the former is not always easy to formulate and leverage with the general purpose computer [???].

It is with a holistic combination of these ideas and notions that the founding members of SLOrk set out to create the ensemble. The following sections chronicle the process and the results.

III. Building the Ensemble

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra was built and instantiated by faculty, students, and staff at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, in Winter 2008. In the course of 12 weeks, and through the collaborative efforts of over 30 individuals, SLOrk went from idea to full realization, reaching a critical mass of 20 stations, each consisting of a laptop, custom-built hemispherical speaker arrays, audio interface, meditation mat and pillow, a small table, as well as number of hardware input devices such as MIDI controllers, joysticks, and Wacom Tablets.

A. Pre Laptop Orchestra

A one-time course was offered at CCRMA titled "Pre-Laptop Orchestra" in the winter of 2008, with the ultimate goal of making SLOrk a fully functioning ensemble platform, in time for the full course in Spring 2009, titled "Composing, Coding, and Performance with Laptop Orchestra". Over 30 individuals participated, including Masters students in CCRMA's Music, Science, and Technology program, CCRMA PhD students, and undergrads from Music, Computer Science, and Symbolic Systems, as well as faculty and staff members.

The primary goals in the Pre-Laptop Orchestra included several concurrent tracks. With the then recent availability of compact, efficient, low-cost amplifiers, and the desire to maximize mobility for the ensemble, a campaign commenced to design the SLOrk speaker array from scratch. Another track focused on drafting and finalizing the hardware specification for the ensemble, addressing the practical aspects of how each SLOrk station works, as well as how the ensemble as a whole is set up. Decisions had to made at every level, from choosing the laptop model, audio interface model, external input devices, to all wiring/cabling, power, networking, spatial arrangement of each station, transportation and storage. Another track addressed the software architecture and data storage for the ensemble. These are addressed in details in the next two subsections.

B. Hemispherical Speaker Design and Construction

[Nick: please insert text]

- design phase - for every aspect of design we ended using, there were many more ideas we discarded (various speaker sizes, form factors, as well as the ammo box approach, different amplifier kits, etc.) - "ingredients" - building phase (we have many pictures)

C. Integration

In addition to the speaker arrays, we decided on the following specifications for the initial SLOrk ensemble:

Each Station (x20): 13" black MacBook MOTU Ultralite audio firewire interface Custom SLOrk speaker array IKEA breakfast tray (for holding laptop) Meditation mats and pillows Custom 6-channel audio snakes Powerstrip

Shared among the ensemble: 802.11n Wireless router Gigabit ethernet switch (2x) 4 power conditioners 10 TriggerFinger USB MIDI interfaces 8 USB MIDI keyboards 20 USB Joysticks Microphones (Sure SM-57) Microphones (Sure KSM-237) Storage cases

IV. Performances

A. Sonic SLOrk Sculptures

The first official concert for SLOrk was held at the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, Stanford University. This performance was the first full-scale outdoors laptop orchestra performance, involving twenty laptop stations. Because of its unique outdoors setting, the group had to figure out solutions to uncommon problems such as getting power, sending wireless signals, and working with ambiance noise. [ELABORATE ON THESE] The audience was encouraged to sit close to a station to observe the performers, and even to walk around during the performance to hear the soundscapes generated by the ensemble. [INSERT PICTURE]

B. Concert with China

Another major concert performed by SLOrk was the Pacific Rim of Wire, at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University. This was an online concert with China, as part of the 2008 Pan-Asian Music Festival. In this first laptop orchestra telematic concert, musicians from SLOrk and the Stanford New Ensemble connected with musicians of Central Conservatory of China in Beijing to perform - in real time via a webcast - a program that celebrates music, technology, and international collaboration. [INSERT PICTURE]

C. SLOrktastic Chamber Music

In contrast to the Sonic SLOrk Sculptures and the Pacific Rim of Wire concert with China, which were performances that incorporated all twenty laptop stations, the SLOrktastic Chamber Music concert featured student-composed works in an intimate chamber music setting. All eighteen pieces showcased in the concert were product of a classroom assignment, and each piece reflected the creativity of the student composer. While the original homework assignment called for either (1) an instrument for a single hemi using ChucK that takes advantage of the multi-channel aspect, or (2) a piece for five laptops that is unamplified except for onboard laptop speakers, many students took the liberty to further develop their pieces to their fullest artistic potential. The following is a brief highlight of some of the pieces presented:

Clair De Lupe by Baek Chang

Clair De Lupe is a granular synthesis interpretation of Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy. It uses a multigrained granular synthesis patch programmed in ChucK. Two grains come out of each hemispherical channel simultaneously, for a total of twelve at a time (per laptop station). The piece offers a precise keyboard control over various parameters including the grain size, amount of randomness, and position along the buffer. This flexible control allow the performer to beautifully craft the original tune of Clair De Lune. The granular synthesis ChucK patch designed for this piece has now been adapted by other SLOrk works.

El canto de los sueños by Patricia Elizabeth Martinez

This composition for six laptop stations aims at emotional and sensitive use of technology. The composer explores the question of how to integrate 'hard' and 'soft', as a metaphor of an internal and external relationships in an interrelated artistic world. Sound is seen as an externalization of a combination of multiple factors: memories, mind, soul, body, feelings, sensitivity, poetic inspiration, musical integration, and breathing life. Each laptop plays a melody based on a popular Argentinean lullaby, and creates a smooth texture of dream-like sounds.

nous sommes tous des Fernando... by Robert Hamilton

This is an improvisatory work written for the SLOrk using q3osc as a user-interface for sound synthesis and spatialization in ChucK. [QUOTE ROB'S PAPER] A screen projected in front of the hall displays a virtual environment, in which four performers control avatars: firing sound-projectiles which bounce or home-in on individual performers, creating sound events with every bounce/collision. This piece is both visually and sonically stimulating, and has also been performed by a full-scale SLOrk stations outdoors.

PopcorN by Jieun Oh

This multi-sensory piece simulates popcorn being popped inside a microwave. Over a period of about three minutes, six laptop stations creates a 'pop' noise, reaching maximum popping frequency and intensity about 20 seconds prior to the end. Once the time is up, the microwave beeps three times to signal the end of the piece-- at which point real, edible popcorns with their buttery scent is brought into the concert hall for the audience to taste.

'20" by Kyle Swenson Spratt and Adnan Marquez-Borbon

This piece-- or rather, "an experiment in emergence"-- plays with the concept of "the independence of sound and its liberated behavior from human control." The work involves two performers working through a pile of laptops: for each laptop, they (1) initiate a ChucK program that delays and pitchshifts the input sound and plays it out of the laptop's onboard speakers, (2) place the laptop carefully by other already-playing laptops, and (3) close its screen about two-thirds of the way such that the sounds get reflected from the speakers to the screen and to the other laptops' surfaces. The end result is a giant sound-emitting physical sculpture of twenty laptops. When the end of the piece is reached, the performers close the computer screens all the way, which results in the laptops' falling asleep.

As suggested by the sample of pieces above, the SLOrktastic Chamber Music concert served as an opportunity for the students to express their musical creativity, resulting in a new variety of laptop orchestra pieces that take advantage of the nature of laptop as a meta-instrument.

D. MacWorld 2009 - features MoPhO

V. Classroom

A. Vision

B. Instantiation

C. Methodology

A typical SLOrk classroom naturally integrates aspects of composing, coding, and performance. The beginning of quarter is usually spent exploring existing repertoire to offer new students a sense of what it is like to perform in a laptop orchestra. These sessions spark a lively conversation on the students' initial reactions, which often include sharing ideas for improvement.

As part of the coursework, students also bring to the classroom new compositions for the laptop orchestra. These composition assignments give students opportunities to create new pieces, which are then presented and tried out during class in a chamber setting. Though coding is a natural element of composing, students become experienced with programming also through live-coding practice sessions. During such sessions, students experiment with sculpting sound on the spot by manipulating the code at a variety of levels.

Finally, performance is an integral part of the SLOrk classroom. During rehearsals, students learn about the interface controls to a given piece, become familiar with the conductor's gestures, and come to understand the artistic aims of a piece. Through rehearsals students learn to become a sensitive performer, focusing on the quality of the sound generated and striving for high musicality.

VI. Future Work

A. Vision of SLOrk




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