Introducing L20rk: the Linux Laptop Orchestra
An Interview with Ivica Ico Bukvic
I spoke with Ico Bukvic on the hard-line and later asked him for a question-and-answer session to clarify some of the points we discussed. I must note that we had a hard time finishing our chats, the subject matter is simply too exciting and provocative.
DP: Are the Netbooks networked with each other or are they standalone units?
IB: Networking is a critical component of the ensemble, as this is something truly unique to the laptop orchestra genre. Hence, all machines are networked at all times, allowing composers to take advantage of this great opportunity to build monitoring tools, coordinate the ensemble and even alter the ensemble's properties in real time, based on performers' actions.
DP: What Linux distribution are you using?
IB: Currently, we are using a modified version of Ubuntu 9.04 and have just begun migrating slowly to 9.10 with the ultimate short-term goal of eventually moving to the 10.04 LTS release.
DP: Are you exploiting the capabilities of the real-time kernel, low latency and JACK?
IB: Absolutely! Our current 9.04 setup runs the 2.26.29-rc6-rt3 real-time kernel, which we compiled in-house. With our upcoming migration to 9.10, we've been testing the one provided by Ubuntu Studio and have been quite pleased by its performance in our tests so far.
DP: Besides Pd, what other application software is used?
IB: Currently, all works written specifically for L2Ork rely upon Pd or our customized version of Pd-extended. As things settle a bit, we are definitely looking forward to incorporating ChucK and SuperCollider, which will enable us also to perform works written for other *Orks, and other DSP software composers may end up utilizing works written specifically for our ensemble.
DP: Is being a musician or programmer helpful/necessary/preferable/required for members of the band?
IB: While having musical background, performance experience, and being proficient with technology certainly helps, this in my opinion is only a fraction of the overall L2Ork experience. If anything, I would argue that L2Ork offers a uniquely level playing field, engaging students regardless of their background and/or current area of study. Perhaps this is one of its greatest creative strengths.
DP: Has L2Ork performed music written for other laptop ensembles?
IB: Not yet, mainly because we have been so busy exploring our own aesthetic identity that we've simply had no time to do so. This is, however, definitely on top of our to-do list, and I am hoping we will be performing other *Ork repertoire before the end of this year.
DP: What notable new possibilities present themselves to the composer writing for a laptop orchestra?
IB: I think L2Ork's versatility is at this point probably more limited by our imagination than its infrastructure, and I suspect this will remain true for some time to come. After all, at the heart of L2Ork infrastructure is a laptop, which by its very nature can take on so many different roles. This is something I find to be tremendously exciting, and this is what attracted me to the laptop orchestra concept in the first place.
Imagine having an ensemble where each performer's action, apart from producing sound, also alters someone else's instrument. What if these interdependencies were evolving, changing over time in a way one could not even begin to fathom, cascading complexities that may arise from such treatment of a musical material. Or, what about having a group of L2Orkists not making sound collaboratively sculpt a 3-D sculpture whose shape is also affected by the sound produced by the rest of the ensemble and whose resulting properties somehow feed back into other domains, affecting instruments, lighting, or theatre, or something else. On a more conservative side, just having full awareness of what everyone else is doing within the ensemble can be used in all kinds of cool and experimental ways to shape a piece's structure and consequently its drama. For instance, a composer may request that a certain group of performers maintain a certain amount of activity, which is generated by averaging actions from everyone within that group. As material becomes more abstract, this quickly becomes an invaluable tool to monitor the overall output. And the list goes on as far as one's imagination can muster.
DP: What notable challenges—administrative, technical, musical, personal—have you encountered while directing L2Ork?
IB: Let's just say that working with L2Ork is as trying as it is exciting. I think to be able to truly attain understanding of and control over L2Ork, one has to be comfortable with juggling many different roles: being an engineer, computer scientist, user-interface designer, composer, performer and so on. Often, these roles tend to overlap, and I found this to be particularly exhausting.
Last semester must have been one of the busiest semesters I've had since I joined Virginia Tech, if not in my entire academic career. I probably would never have bothered if I did not think that the potential benefits weren't worth it. In this respect, I feel L2Ork did not disappoint.
DP: What are some of your long-range goals for L2Ork?
IB: I am not sure if we have any big long-term plans, in part because we are still so overwhelmed with the existing possibilities that we've had little time to think five or ten years ahead. Another consideration is the pace at which technology changes. Who knows, perhaps in five years the entire ensemble will have technology embedded in their clothing.
Near-term, however, my focus is on growth both in numbers and in repertoire, touring and strengthening ties with our peer *Ork ensembles, encouraging Linux community participation, forming new Linux-based *Orks and, of course, ensuring that we have adequate support to ensure the initiative's long-term well being.
DP: Anything or anyone else you'd like to mention?
IB: I would like to hereby extend my deepest gratitude to those who have made L2Ork possible. This includes the entire Linux community and particularly the members of the Linuxaudio.org community, our stakeholders, sponsors, fans and supporters, as well as all the students for their efforts and dedication and for having been brave enough to invest their time into something so experimental.
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