Powering up for the downbeat | May 24, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 24, 2013

Powering up for the downbeat

Laptop orchestra codes and choreographs new works for first Bing Concert Hall show

by Rebecca Wallace

Students sit on flat meditation cushions, many people cross-legged, most barefoot. A yoga class? Sure, if your mantra is a computer start-up sound.

This class is actually a rehearsal: of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, also known as SLOrk. Founded by assistant professor Ge Wang at CCRMA (the university's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics), the five-year-old group encourages Stanford students to compose, perform and conduct music on a lineup of Macs. SLOrk members weave notes and sounds through mouse pads, keystrokes, drum pads and even game controllers with high-tech gloves.

New sounds are continually being discovered. SLOrk compositions can sound like Tibetan singing bowls or a John Adams minimalist movement. Empty-handed musicians may pantomime playing the drums or the stand-up bass, with their game-controller gloves altering the sound.

"It's always been an experiment, and still is," Wang says.

Next month, SLOrk is headed for a new acoustic experience: playing the new Bing Concert Hall. A few of the musicians performed at the swank venue's opening in January — "It was pretty awesome," says player Jieun Oh — but June 5 will mark the first Bing concert for the whole 12-member ensemble. The hall opens up a new acoustic world, as well as a spacious one where the orchestra will be able to spread out and possibly integrate more physical moves.

In preparation, at this class meeting tonight, SLOrkers are bandying about some new ideas. Musicians have broken into small groups to come up with new pieces, sounds and "instruments" for the laptops and their accoutrements, and they're teaching them to their peers while sharing the code they've written with the other laptops.

One prototype includes a drum pad on which student Caleb Rau starts playing noises he's recorded: the rattlings of pebbles, ice and wood chips; the firings of nail guns. The plan is to have him hammer out combinations of sounds and record them as repetitive loops, he says. While the loops play back, he'll also play live on the drum pads. The other students will use Gametrak game controllers to alter the sound.

Rau and his group cohorts, Luke Wilson and Victoria Grace, explain to the other students how to use their controllers. Strings on the controllers track the positions of the students' hands, so moving a hand can manipulate the sound. Grace jumps up to act as the orchestra's impromptu conductor. While Rau plays back a loop that sounds like "zip zip BOOM zip zip BOOM," Grace raises and lowers her hand, and the students mirror her, pulling on their strings with thoughtful faces. A noisy patter of drum loops rises and falls. Steve Reich would be proud.

The work is in progress, but it's an intriguing start. "We'll have a huge variety of sounds," Wilson promises.

Another group presents a prototype that makes colorful use of Windows XP start-up sounds. They echo ringing tones across the company of laptops. Justin Heermann says his group is considering having audience participation in the Windows piece — through the crowd's own mobile phones. Watchers would go to a URL and their phones would light up with colors and sounds at the climax of the piece.

The students try this out. Their own phones come to life, sparking grins and giggles and a "Whoa!" from one guy.

As the Windows tones play on the laptops (sometimes erupting unexpectedly when people are trying to talk) the classroom feels like a start-up itself. These are new ideas being born, and often there are technical glitches at first. But bugs are all part of the process, Wang observes. "This is exactly why we have rehearsals like this." They're building something new from scratch.

Wang should know. When he created SLOrk with faculty, students and staff in the spring of 2008, the group utilized an ingenious array of objects. They fashioned speakers from IKEA salad bowls and car-stereo components. Each laptop sits on its own table and connects with cables to its own apparatus. And, of course, each musician has a meditation cushion to sit on. Five years later, the speakers have held up. The Macs are a later model.

Wang came to Stanford in 2007, after co-directing the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and teaching at Dartmouth College. He's now an assistant professor at CCRMA and Stanford's music department (and computer science, by courtesy). Wang authored the ChucK audio-programming language that SLOrk uses, and also co-founded the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra.

SLOrk has performed regularly over the years, including a real-time jam with traditional Chinese musicians in Beijing and performances at Macworld in San Francisco's Moscone Center and outdoors in Stanford's New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Along the way, the group has always attracted an unusual mix of players: not just music majors, but people studying biology, computer science and other disciplines.

"Music is just a universal glue. It brings people together," Wang says.

This quarter's bunch is dominated by computer-science students, many of whom are new to composing and performing music, much less conducting it.

The students "have the coding chops" to build the nuts and bolts of SLOrk compositions, but everything else about orchestra life may be relatively new to them, says teaching assistant Kurt Werner. "It's impressive how fast they're picking things up."

Though Wang is here at today's rehearsal, he's on sabbatical this academic year and is not around regularly. In his absence, Werner and fellow TA Spencer Salazar are running the orchestra, overseen by Jieun Oh, a fifth-year Ph.D. student who has been part of SLOrk as a student or TA throughout her grad-school career.

Oh is a classically trained flutist who knew very little about computer music before she came to Stanford. As an undergraduate here, she majored in symbolic systems and started thinking about the intersection of music and technology. Now she's working toward a doctorate in computer-based music theory and acoustics.

"My undergraduate major got me to think about cognition and perception, and the reasons why people get into music," Oh says, sitting with Werner before class. "I like the whole field of HCI: human-computer interaction."

Werner, who has a background in classical saxophone, is earning his doctorate in the same field. Like Oh, he's a veteran performer. But a big part of working with SLOrk is learning not to just try to emulate the acoustic instruments, the two both say. That way lies frustration.

Instead, laptop musicians must embrace the differences in computer music. It's not about trying to produce the perfect tone, but about enjoying the possibilities of playing a wide variety of instrument sounds, like some futuristic one-man band.

"Theoretically, you could be creating any kind of sound timbre with instruments," Oh says. Her favorite part: "When you aren't sure where the sweet spot is, you just keep improvising. It's exciting. It's like finding a hidden treasure."

SLOrk is also about learning to teach others the prototypes you've written, and about figuring out how to make all the computers work together as one orchestra. "Laptop musicians are more conductors than virtuosos," Werner says.

One challenge peculiar to a laptop orchestra is making an audience understand how the musicians are creatively producing the sound. The danger is that the orchestra could look like just a bunch of students checking their email, Werner says. So SLOrk choreographs moves that audiences can see, like musicians making sweeping arm gestures or pantomiming playing with their game-controller gloves.

In one SLOrk video from 2010, the action shows the diversity of the sounds possible. Instead of playing something peaceful and minimalist, as one might expect, several musicians launch into a piece called "Experimental Headbang Orchestra." As one person conducts, the others jump up and down, head-bang and flail their bodies forward and back. Unobtrusively but by no means quietly, the laptops wail away, sounding like a bunch of wild electric guitars.

Info: SLOrk will perform at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall at 8 p.m. June 5. The concert is free, but audience members must pick up tickets in advance. For details, go to live.stanford.edu.