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 Composer's Corner

See the Resources for this article for some links to music performed by various laptop orchestras. It doesn't take long to realize that just about any style of music can be written for and performed by a laptop group, although Ico advised me that if the composer wants a screaming lead-guitar solo over a manic heavy-metal bass and drum pattern, that composer would be better off with a rock band than a laptop orchestra. Yes, a laptop ensemble is extremely flexible, but composers still must consider whether it is the appropriate vehicle for their music.

Ico Bukvic's “Citadel” is an excellent example of a piece written specifically for the L2Ork group. It is a beautiful work, and while listening to it, I wondered if it could be played by a traditional group. I concluded that it could be arranged for such a group but that it probably would lose something in the translation. By comparison with some other compositions for laptop groups, Ico's piece is a relatively conservative work, one that was likely intended to give his players a gentle introduction to a piece written in a modern musical idiom. Other recordings show off the less traditional, more experimental possibilities. Of course, it is unnecessary to choose between extremes, and composers for the laptop orchestra have access to a vast palette of sounds and performance techniques that they can bend, fold, staple and mutilate to their hearts' content.

The Author Muses

The computer can be used to create new sounds from synthesis primitives (oscillators, envelopes and filters), from recordings of existing sounds (sampling, analysis/resynthesis and granulation) or from mathematical models of the physical characteristics of sounding materials (physical modeling). It can follow a set of instructions that tell it when to do these things, and with the appropriate control software, the machine can decide for itself where, when and what to play during a performance. But, exactly how does someone “play” a computer? The generality of the machine works in favor of multiple solutions to the problem of the performer's interface. The common input devices—keyboard, mouse, joystick, touchpad, tablet, touchscreen—can be used, although typically, they have no tactile sensitivity. MIDI-based solutions include keyboards, guitars, percussion pads and wind controllers, all of which have the advantage of being familiar designs for musicians trained to play traditional instruments. The USB port provides connectivity with pressure-sensitive devices and other sensors whose data streams can be mapped to synthesis parameters and score events. Composers can specify any or all of these devices as needed, or they may design a completely new interface.

Given the protean nature of the instrument and its networking capabilities, computer-based ensembles can take on many forms. The machine can be programmed to function musically as a single instrument or an ensemble of instruments, as a standalone performer or as a member of an ensemble, with or without an operator. These distinctions are not exclusive—a soloist may be accompanied by an ensemble in a concerto-like piece—and the composition of a group is subject to fluid redefinition over a network. Unlike an instrument in a traditional orchestra, the machine needn't have a single permanent identity.

A human instrumentalist performs many related tasks when reading a score or improvising. Ensemble players learn to master their individual parts by attending to technical issues and by responding musically to the dictates of the score. Within the group, there is a further exercise of sensitivities. Each player becomes responsible for the balance of his or her part within the group, and everyone's performance is understood to serve a particular interpretation. Modeling the complexity of the musical and social group dynamics of a performing ensemble presents formidable difficulties, particularly when we want the machine to interact with a musically convincing improvised response to another player's improvisation while following and interpreting the guidance of a conductor (human or otherwise).

Frankly, the musical mind boggles at the possibilities presented by the laptop orchestra. Ico and I joked about creating a game called Orchestra Hero for the group, but why not? In the domain of education, the possible applications of the laptop orchestra could be most attractive, especially as costs rise and budgets shrink. I have no desire to see traditional instruments replaced by computers, but I'd love to see the computer become even more integrated into school music programs at all levels.

The Future Beckons

I hope you've enjoyed this introduction to the Linux Laptop Orchestra. Of course, you really need to watch and listen to the group in concert, so be sure to check out the videos and other recordings. Check out the whole *Ork scene while you're at it—you'll be watching the cutting edge in action. If you are sufficiently inspired, you even can put together your own Linux laptop orchestra. The plans are freely available, the costs are low, and the software solutions are free and open source. All that's needed is a little do-it-yourself spirit, a little hardware hacking and Linux on the inside.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.