The Sound of Laptops


Twenty computer scientists and musicians take seats on stage and open their MacBooks, and soon the concert hall at Stanford University fills with the sonic grandeur—if not the exact sounds—of a full symphony orchestra. The players operate keyboards, trackpads, USB controllers, joysticks, and accelerometers, occasionally tilting the notebooks or even manipulating code in real time. The lap- tops communicate in a music-oriented program- ming language called ChucK, in which a sequence of numbers represents a sound, and each laptop is attached to its own set of high-end car speakers assembled into inverted ikea salad bowls.

When the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) is in concert, says SLOrk founder and director Ge Wang, “you’re surrounded, it envelops you; there’s a space that’s projected by the ensemble that’s sonically rich, but also spatially varied and interest- ing; it’s everywhere.”

SLOrk concerts are a research tool for perform- ers, allowing them to discover which sounds work and which do not. While similar to traditional ensembles in scale, sound treatment, and composi- tion, SLOrk creates new “meta-instruments” that make otherworldly sounds. “Some of them work well and others are still very much in progress,” says Wang. SLOrk performers are capable of adapting a traditional repertoire to ChucK, but they primarily compose their own songs, experimenting with new sounds and instruments.

Wang’s latest project is something he calls the Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPhO) made up of a dozen iPhones and speakers that he wants to turn into a large ensemble with its own music. MoPhO, he says, enables one person to “hold an entire ensemble of instruments in a backpack and go to a public space and perform at a moment’s notice.”

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Jessica Wilde is a writer and video producer, creating content for NASA and other government clients. Follow her maritime adventures on YouTube.


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