A Laptop Orchestra Boots Up

It’s clear at a glance that the music ensemble conducted by Stanford University assistant professor Ge Wang is no ordinary orchestra.

“Twenty students sit barefoot atop brightly colored mats, their shoes lined up neatly beside them,” writes Erin Biba in Stanford magazine in its March-April 2009 issue. “In front of each, an Apple MacBook rests open on a small metal table. Black cables snake across the hardwood floor, connecting the computers to dome-shaped speakers.”

This is the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, and its members play compositions like “Drone,” which incorporates “whirring electronic tones that, when played in concert, are reminiscent of Buddhist monks chanting,” and an ambient work called “a breeze brings . . .” that slowly builds using sounds that fall “somewhere between ringing bells and a wet finger on the rim of a crystal glass.”

The computers are producing the sounds, but Wang, who teaches in Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, is careful to make a key distinction. “The computer itself is not an instrument, but a platform for making instruments,” he he tells Stanford. Students write programs that instruct their laptops to produce the sounds, which in theory are infinite.

Portable speakers are key to the ensemble’s approach, Wang says. They localize each sound to the player making it, distinguishing the group from other computer-based composition and performance ensembles.

The center’s director, Chris Chafe, says the laptop orchestra is a musical representation of the crowd mentality created by the Internet and social networking.

“Each time we play, it’s hard to predict what the outcome is going to be,” says Jieun Oh, a doctoral student in computer music, tells Stanford. “It’s like an adventure each time, and that makes it exciting.”

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