Laptop orchestra combines music with technology, gaming skills

To be a member of Virginia Tech’s newest orchestra, video gaming skills help. So do perseverance, passion for music, and a penchant for choreography.
   

Laptop orchestra performs The Virginia Tech Linux Laptop orchestra will be taking its show on the road as it travels to perform in the Intermedia Festival on April 23-25 in Indianapolis, Ind. They will also perform at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A knack for woodworking and soldering to convert salad bowls into speakers comes in handy. Toss in a little knowledge of open-source software and the ingredients are there to become a maestro in Virginia Tech’s Linux Laptop Orchestra, also known as L2Ork (simply pronounced lork).

In its December 2009 debut, the orchestra played to a standing room-only crowd in Squires Studio Theatre. After the concert, the stage was swamped with eager and enthusiastic audience members who wanted to learn more.

L2Ork has won the university’s 2010 XCaliber Award, which recognizes teams of faculty, staff, and/or students who have made significant contributions to integrating technology in teaching and learning in a course or project.

Virginia Tech’s laptop group is the first Linux-based orchestra in the world with a focus on ultra-affordable design. Ivica Ico Bukvic, founder and director of L2Ork and a faculty member in the Department of Music, explained how the newest ensemble on campus started.

"To minimize cost and encourage widespread adoption as well as exploration of opportunities in K-12 education, we utilize an inexpensive MSI Wind Notebook and employ Linux operating system that is freely available for download," said Bukvic.

   

Orchestra speakers Speakers for the laptop orchestra were made from wooden salad bowls.

Salad bowls for speakers

In keeping with the affordable design, Bukvic — in collaboration with Thomas L. Martin, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, and Eric Standley, assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts, and an army of undergraduate student researchers — fashioned homemade speakers out of wooden salad bowls. The hemispherical design, each with six speakers, allows for omnidirectional projection of a sound source. Painted black and soldered by the research project team over the summer, the speakers add a robotic look to this unusual orchestra pit.

   

The laptop orchestra uses a MSI Wind Notebook with a Linux operating system. Players follow upcoming directional cues on the screen. The laptop orchestra uses a MSI Wind Notebook with a Linux operating system. Players follow upcoming directional cues on the screen.

The technology

Think of the computer as the music stand. Players observe their "scores" on the screen and follow upcoming directional cues. Wiimotes and nunchuks (controllers used with today’s action computer games) are the instruments. Orchestra members hold one of these in each hand, controlling loudness, pitch, sound color, and just about any other parameter as prescribed by the composer. Their collective gestures mimic that of a bow on a stringed instrument and range from smooth to feverish intensity as volume builds.

Members of this new symphony are students who identify themselves as "music technologists" and "computer geeks" as well as theatre arts, political science, engineering, biology, and math majors. L2Ork’s debut featured compositions by Bukvic as well as music major David Mudre, a junior from Fredericksburg, Va.

"It has been a wonderful experience being a part of something that is completely new and experimental as L2Ork," said Jennifer Hoar, a fifth-year music major from Chesapeake, Va. "Apart from learning how to make music with laptops and Wiimotes, we have been part of the essential process of defining what we wanted to express, finding a way to communicate about musical gestures with both classically trained musicians and non-musicians, and how to achieve our goals with the given medium."

   

Ivica Ico Bukvic, founder and director of the laptop orchestra, is a faculty member in the Department of Music. Ivica Ico Bukvic, founder and director of the laptop orchestra, is a faculty member in the Department of Music.

Outreach into K-12

Because of its affordability, L2Ork can be imitated in K-12 education, where it may serve as a bridge between the arts and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (STEM). In spring 2010, the Roanoke Academy for Math and Science was outfitted for a five-station orchestra and is partnering with Virginia Tech. Fifth-grade children from the Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Virginia were the initial participants. Future partnerships include the Music Lab at Jefferson Center in Roanoke. Va.

Steven Querry, a junior music major from Leesburg, Va., said that "being a L2Orkist has been a very interesting and exploratory look at both function and composition of music. During the 'testing phase' we experimented with such an eclectic assortment of sounds that it made me question where we were actually headed; however, where we have arrived after evaluating our findings is unlike any ensemble I've ever heard, while still being one of the more exciting."

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at (540) 231-5915.

Gallery: Children learn how to make their own laptop orchestra

    Children play music on the laptop.

Professor speaks at TEDx event

    Ivica Ico Bukvic, founder and director of the laptop orchestra, is a faculty member in the Department of Music.

Ivica Ico Bukvic is a composer and intermedia sculptor who presented at a TEDx event in November 2009. 

“TED” stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — three broad subject areas that TED organizers say are, collectively, shaping the future. Speakers give “the talk of their life in 18 minutes or less,” according to the TEDx website. 

Laptop orchestra sponsors

L2Ork is an initiative of the Virginia Tech Music Department’s Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio. It has been made possible through support from across the campus and beyond. 

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