A November profile on apple.com caught my attention the other day. It was a piece on the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, a group of musicians and computer scientists using MacBooks as musical instruments. Not to compose or playback sound, but to be used as musical instruments in and of themselves. SLOrk’s creator, Ge Wang, explains:
“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.”
Okay, so the feature is a bit of a Macbook commercial, but what Wang has pioneered is the first of its kind, and may change the nature of future orchestral performances. He even developed a special speaker system to project his orchestra’s music since, as Wang points out, “In an orchestra, the sound doesn’t come from a central PA system. Each instrument emits its own sound.”
It remains to be seen whether Wang’s orchestra produces music of any aesthetic, non-experimental, value, but the sheer act of taking a common object (a laptop) and viewing it as something completely different (a musical instrument) is a powerful way to jump-start the creative juices in the first place. SLOrk is, if nothing else, an expression of true “freedom of thought.”
And, on some level, it’s nice to see musicians using a computer as “itself” rather than as a simulator of other instruments.