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What is the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk)?

(Courtesy of Ge Wang)

Nick Kruge stands solemnly, his right foot poised over the pedal. His hands are laced around two long, extendable strings that are stretched taut in the air, level with his shoulders.

With a broad sweeping horizontal motion, Kruge strokes the air, and the sound of an eerie harp fills the air. Swishing hands back and forth in bold waves, the pitch and volume of the invisible harp shifts. A step on the pedal and suddenly Kruge is no longer playing a harp but an entirely unique and new instrument.

“It’s virtual reality, but for your ears,” Kruge said, pointing at the wooden domed-shaped speaker on the floor. “You can swirl the sound around, or you could have different channels play different things.”

Kruge, a second-year graduate student in music, is a member of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk). According to its website, SLOrk “is a large-scale, computer-mediated ensemble that explores cutting-edge technology in combination with conventional musical contexts.”

Currently under the direction of Ge Wang, SLOrk was founded in 2008 by a group of Stanford students, faculty and staff at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). This ensemble is composed of more than “20 laptops, human performers, controllers and custom multi-channel speaker arrays.”

Despite being called an “orchestra,” SLOrk’s goals are different from those of a traditional ensemble.

“Our goal isn’t to recreate traditional music using computers,” said Jieun Oh, a third-year doctoral candidate studying music and computer science. She is also one of the co-directors of SLOrk. “Traditional and computer music each have their strengths. Instead, we are taking advantage of the cool features that technology has, namely the unique sounds that a computer can make that traditional instruments can’t.”

The essence of SLOrk’s music starts with programming code.

“You come up with a concept,” said Nick Bryan, a third-year doctoral candidate and a fellow SLOrk co-director. “You flesh it out and create the music by writing code, so that [eventually] it can be felt by the audience.”

One of the most distinctive aspects of SLOrk is that the performers are not only the composers and performers of their music, but they are also the architects of their own instruments.

“In a traditional ensemble, you just play the music–you’re not writing it,” Kruge said. “What we’re doing in SLOrk is like giving an orchestra a bunch of wood and saws and asking them to make the instruments and compose the music afterwards.

SLOrk blurs the line between instrument and piece by taking advantage of the computer’s networking capabilities, thereby revolutionizing ensemble communication.

“You can type to someone while playing,” Kruge said. “It’s similar to a traditional orchestra where you make eye contact with other members to convey a certain message.”

“If a player is sounding too bright, the conductor can let him know that immediately without the audience knowing,” Oh said.

The network, to which all the SLOrk laptops are linked, allows for greater fluidity and synchronization between ensemble members. However, part of the mystical quality of SLOrk’s music is that there isn’t a set musical score.

“It’s a lot more dynamic than it appears,” Oh said. “The general reaction we get is, ‘Oh, you just press buttons.’ But it’s not like that. The way we interact with the instrument shapes the piece. The instruments don’t have their own potential until we rehearse in a group because the piece itself is the instrument.”

“I mean, we can do that–just press buttons–but it wouldn’t be very fun,” Oh added.

The music that SLOrk composes is just as eclectic as its collection of instrumental accessories, which includes joysticks, virtual golf machines and IKEA salad bowl speakers.

“Different algorithms produce different moods, which means a variety of music,” Bryan said. “There’s no specific genre of music that we prefer. We have everything ranging from rock band-style ‘virtual air guitar’ to music more typical to traditional ensembles.”

Creating a working piece, let alone a beautiful one, requires a considerable amount of work.

“It’s difficult to build an instrument that doesn’t ‘break,’” Kruge said. “A successful piece is its scalability. If it sounds great with one person and then with 20, then you know that it’s well designed.”

Interested students can take the SLOrk class offered during spring quarter for one to five units. SLOrk typically holds two concerts, both of which are in the spring. The class is open to everyone, not just computer science majors.

“We get lots of CS students, as well as those in linguistics, music and symbolic systems,” Bryan said.

Despite the late-night rehearsals, students have found the ensemble immensely rewarding.

“The type of sound you create in SLOrk, you can’t hear anywhere else,” Oh said.