Introducing L20rk: the Linux Laptop Orchestra

Using Linux and a few extra parts, the Linux Laptop Orchestra from Virginia Tech is music to our ears, in more ways than one.

When I searched Google for “define: orchestra”, I received some interesting responses. The first definition I found says “a musical organization consisting of a group of instrumentalists including string players”, which describes a rock band as well as the Boston Pops. Another defines an orchestra as “an instrumental ensemble, usually fairly large with string, brass, woodwind sections and possibly a percussion section as well”. That one is closer to the popular conception of an orchestra, but my favorite definition is “a group of musicians led by the conductor who accompany the singers”, a clarification sure to ruffle the feathers of many an orchestral instrumentalist.

The definition of a laptop orchestra requires similar flexibility. Modern computers make excellent music machines, whether for common media playback or for the specialized purposes of music composition and audio synthesis. Even inexpensive laptops, notebooks and Netbooks are capable of high-quality real-time synthesis, giving them an apparently limitless variety of sounds. The machine is well described as a meta-instrument, an instrument that subsumes the sound palette of traditional instruments and adds new sonic possibilities of its own. An ensemble of such machines might be described as a meta-orchestra, an orchestra of orchestras or simply a laptop orchestra.

In this article, I combine a project profile, an interview with the team leader and some musings on the significance of the world's first Linux Laptop Orchestra, aka L2Ork (pronounced “lork”). The L2Ork is not the first group of its kind, but it is the first such group based on Linux system and application software. The laptop orchestra has arrived.

History

Today's laptop performance groups have evolved from aesthetic concepts and performance practices that date from the early days of the personal computer. In the late 1970s, musicians and hackers around San Francisco formed the League Of Automatic Music Composers. The League's many fascinating projects included one of the first “network bands” based on the newly available KIM-1 microcomputer. Eventually, the League disbanded, but members John Bischoff and Tim Perkis formed another network band to perform what they called Hub music. The Hub's performances were successful enough to keep the performing group active for ten years.

In 1985, the arrival of MIDI revolutionized the entire music world. For the first time, music could be composed, performed and recorded with an inexpensive single computer, without the need for instrumentalists and at comparatively little expense. Unfortunately, MIDI has certain drawbacks for networked ensembles, including a relatively slow transmission rate bound to a serial data flow. Nevertheless, ensembles of computers running MIDI software could network within the limitations of the specification, and even The Hub experimented with MIDI connectivity.

By the late 1990s, desktop computers were powerful enough to perform real-time audio synthesis while simultaneously processing MIDI data. At the start of the 21st century, the same measure of raw power could be found in lightweight low-cost portable machines, and the development of OSC (Open Sound Control) removed some of the restrictions imposed by MIDI. Among its virtues, OSC accommodates a much wider variety of data types and requires only common networking hardware, such as Ethernet cabling and connectors, giving it a natural fit to designs for computer-based orchestras.

The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project deserves mention in this context. A wireless LAN of OLPC laptops can be bound to one machine's clock for synchronizing the group, giving any group of OLPC machines the capabilities of a laptop orchestra. However, those capabilities are restricted by the relatively low power of the machine itself.

In spring 2008, the prestigious Computer Music Journal published two papers describing the activities of a laptop orchestra led by Ge Wang and Perry Cook at Princeton University. The descriptions and analyses of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (aka PLOrk) provided the starting points for subsequent laptop-based orchestras, such as the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk), and eventually found their way into the able hands and mind of Ivica Ico Bukvic, a professor of music at Virginia Tech and the founder and current director of the Linux Laptop Orchestra there.

The Princeton Laptop Orchestra defined the form and basic potential of the laptop ensemble, but it relied upon the combination of a powerful open-source programming language (Ge Wang's ChucK) with a powerful closed-source application (Cycling 74's Max/MSP) running on proprietary hardware (Apple PowerBooks and MacBooks). Alas, those closed and proprietary aspects can drive the costs of such an ensemble beyond the budgets of many music departments and other interested organizations. Fortunately, the next logical step was taken by the Linux laptop orchestra. Max/MSP can be replaced by Pd and other free software, the restriction of vendor-specific hardware can be removed by the use of inexpensive commodity machines and input devices, and even the cost of the speaker arrays can be reduced significantly. During our interview, L2Ork leader Ico Bukvic stated that the current cost per seat was about $750 and that the cost included the computer and the speaker system.

______________________

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

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