SLOrk (Stanford Laptop Orchestra) is an elite orchestra that play, compose, and perform music using only MacBooks. The ensemble is made up of student computer scientists and musicians who use MacBooks as their electronic instruments. Ge Wang is the man behind the Sanford Laptop Orchestra. He is the director, composer, and conductor who leads the whole group.
When he looks at a MacBook, he sees more than a plain old laptop computer. He sees a versatile platform for creating his own custom made electronic instruments. He thinks that it’s the perfect tool for transforming lines of code, user input, and even gestures into music. They take advantage of all the features and functions.
“We use the MacBook itself as an instrument,” says Wang. “We tilt the notebook and use its built-in accelerometer to expressively control sound. We use the trackpad as a kind of violin bow. We use peripherals like USB game pads and even Nintendo Wii Remotes. Sometimes we modify code directly to generate sound and musical gestures. You can make some wild, diverse music with the MacBook.”
SLOrk also uses computerized clicks, chimes, and bleeps over the hum of string instruments and others to compose their own freestyle melodies. The SLOrk fits right in with the Stanford University and the Computer Research program that funds them. As a high school student Wang fell in love with heavy metal guitar and unlocked his talent for manipulating code and vowed that his career would be a fusion of both of his passions. While he was a PhD student at Princeton, Wang composed his own music and created a programming language called ChucK that was specifically tailored for sound.
Wang initially started off with 20 MacBooks and ChucK to arrange the SLOrk. He states “Mac OS X is stable, and the whole system just works. It also has a fantastic plug-and-play capability. I can plug in an audio interface and I’m ready to make a sound. If you hook up a USB keyboard, drum pad, or joystick, you’re ready to use it within seconds. Core Audio in OS X takes care of that interface between software and hardware, which isn’t trivial. Without it, we wouldn’t be an orchestra.”
After he selected the MacBook as the basis for his orchestra, he designed out of the ordinary speaker systems that gave each performer their own sonic space. “In an orchestra, the sound doesn’t come from a central PA system,” he says. “Each instrument emits its own sound. I wanted that same effect with our orchestra.” The speakers were built using wooden salad bowls, car speakers, and compact amplifiers.