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.
The Software

L2Ork's Netbooks run a mixture of off-the-shelf free software and some custom control programs (also free) written especially for the orchestra. Where the Princeton group deployed the Max/MSP software, the L2Ork group uses its free-software doppelganger, Miller Puckette's Pure Data, more affectionately known as Pd. Both Max/MSP and Pd present a graphic interface to their myriad functions, which include numerous synthesis and audio processing routines. Pd is powerful, easy to learn and extensible by its users. This last aspect is of particular importance when designing interfaces usable by performers who may not be literate in either Pd or Linux itself. Pd accommodates a wide variety of I/O devices (such as the Nintendo controllers), includes functions to provide easy access to network connectivity, and supports OSC and MIDI. A further list of Pd's capabilities is beyond the scope of this article, but it must be said that Pd is a “perfect fit” for the laptop orchestra on a budget. The suggested retail price for the closed-source proprietary Max/MSP is a cool $495, while the total cost of Pd is $0.

Pd's integrated graphic components aren't bad (Figure 5), but they are less than shiny, especially when compared with the program's commercial counterpart. However, thanks to Pd's extensibility, the L2Ork group gets to look at some more sophisticated custom GUI components.

Figure 5. A Pd Patch for Audio Synthesis

Ico Bukvic is no stranger to programming a useful and attractive GUI. While watching the L2Ork performance videos, I thought I recognized a variant of RTmix, a program he wrote when he taught at the University of Cincinnati. RTmix provides visual and audio cues for performers working with computers. It also can schedule other computer-generated activities and events—a handy tool indeed for the laptop ensemble.

Playing in the Band

I was curious to know what academic disciplines were represented within the group of players. I could assume the presence of at least some musicians, and I expected a few comp-sci types, but I was surprised to learn that in fall 2009 the group consisted of one music major, three majors in music technology and one representative each from biology, theater arts, engineering and political science.

Players without performance backgrounds may be reluctant to “let go” as they learn how to manipulate sound with the Nintendo controllers. As they progress, they lose their self-consciousness and begin to realize that they are exploring new performance techniques. Enthusiasm takes hold as the players learn how to create predictable (and unpredictable) effects by moving the controllers in defined arcs and to definite points in the gestural space. Given the early stage of the modern laptop orchestra, a standard repertoire of performance techniques is still being researched and cataloged. However, it is a goal of rehearsals to ensure that each member of the group is aware that his or her movements have specific outcomes for the piece being played. In the same manner as a traditional instrumentalist, the L2Orkists learn how to play their instruments with the control of a rehearsed technique. In other words, they're not just waving their arms around. Well, actually they are waving their arms around, but every movement is defined and directed. And, that brings us to the role of the conductor.

In a traditional orchestra, the players are led through the score of the music by the conductor. To the untrained eye, conductors may seem to be doing little more than waving their arms around. In fact, conductors are responsible for many musical functions. They need to know the score in intimate detail, to know its parts for every member in the instrumental groups, and have a working knowledge of each instrument and the ability to instruct players in terms specific to their instruments. Conductors are human mixers, the one component of a group who plays no instrument yet commands them all. Conductors are responsible for timbral and amplitude balances, and the interpretation of an entire work is performed according to their conception of how the piece should sound. Every artist has a unique personal interpretive sensibility; thus, we have a multitude of recorded versions of Beethoven's symphonies.

In the laptop orchestra, the conductor's role subsumes traditional functions and adds new possibilities. With the appropriate software, the computers in the ensemble are perfectly capable of performing without a conductor. In point of fact, they can do without the performer too, but that scenario is not of interest at the moment. As you can see in the videos, the L2Ork behaves like a traditional orchestra—that is, the performers play their instruments under the guidance of the conductor. However, other scenarios easily present themselves, and those other possibilities may be of compelling interest to a composer.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.