The Machine Orchestra: An Ensemble of Human Laptop Performers and Robotic Musical Instruments
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The Machine Orchestra:
An Ensemble of Human Laptop Performers and Robotic Musical Instruments

This article introduces the Machine Orchestra, a mixed ensemble of human and robotic performers. The Orchestra is coordinated through technical and musical classes at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where the pedagogical focus is to combine the musical elements of a laptop orchestra with the technical skills required to create a robotic ensemble. As of this publication, seven electromechanical instruments have been developed by members and collaborators of the Orchestra. The ensemble has given notable international premieres and performances at venues including the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles and 01SJ, the biennial music and arts festival in San Jose, California. Well-known researchers and performers are invited to participate in the Orchestra to bring novel technical, musical, and collaborative ideas to the ensemble. In this article we describe the design and production of seven robotic instruments, details on the visual and sonic aesthetic of the ensemble, technical considerations of the computer network employed in performance, and information on an assortment of compositions in the current repertoire.

History, Influences, and Curriculum

This section traces the history of the Laptop Orchestra as a teaching laboratory and performance ensemble, and the integration of these concepts into the robotic-design curriculum in the CalArts Music Technology Program.

Evolution of the Laptop Orchestra

In 2006, Dan Trueman and Perry Cook unleashed the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk; Trueman et al. 2006), revealing a new paradigm for teaching, composing, and performing live interactive computer music. Previous ensembles performing live with multiple networked laptops, such as The Hub, generally had fewer than five performers on stage, significantly fewer than the 16 to 25 members of PLOrk. The latter ensemble championed the idea of a laptop orchestra as a learning laboratory of musical interaction design, networked performance, and musical composition, revolutionizing the auditory display and human-computer interfaces used in large electroacoustic ensembles. In PLOrk, each performer's instrument includes a standardized suite of hardware and software: an Apple laptop, a hemispherical speaker, and several devices for gestural input (Wang et al. 2008). [End Page 49]

Figure 1. Machine Orchestra with human-robot relationship. [Editor's note: the humanoid icons in this article represent humans, not robots.]
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Figure 1.

Machine Orchestra with human-robot relationship. [Editor's note: the humanoid icons in this article represent humans, not robots.]

And thus began the "Age of the LOrk." In 2008, Ge Wang, a pivotal member of the original PLOrk, joined the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and founded the first LOrk on the west coast, The Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk). Inspired by the original Princeton model, other laptop orchestras have been forming around the world. Direct collaboration with SLOrk and PLOrk led to the creation of the Oslo and Boulder laptop orchestras. Other groups unaffiliated with educational institutions have also started to emerge, including the Moscow Cyberlaptop Orchestra, the Tokyo Laptop Orchestra, and the Seattle Laptop Orchestra. In 2009, The Virginia Institute of Technology founded the first LOrk created fully through open source technology, aptly named the Linux Laptop Orchestra, L2Ork. The concept of a LOrk has also transitioned to mobile devices, with the first mobile phone orchestra (MoPho) performing in 2008 (Wang, Essl, and Penttinen 2008). Since then, other networked ensembles of phones have surfaced, including the Michigan Mobile Phone Orchestra, The Helsinki MoPho, and the Berlin Mobile Phone Orchestra. (See the Appendix for a full listing of the ensembles and their respective Web sites.)

Following in the footsteps of other LOrks, and influenced by robotic orchestras such as Eric Singer and Paul Lehrman's Ballet Mécanique Automated Orchestra and Pat Metheny's Orchestrion, the Machine Orchestra has endeavored to create a laptop orchestra with a robotic dimension (see Figure 1). Adding to the pedagogical disciplines and experience of established laptop ensembles, the Machine Orchestra focuses on teaching students a bottom-up approach to musical robotics, going through mechanical engineering for actuators, acoustic engineering for instrument design, and electrical engineering and computer science for human-machine interaction design. The Orchestra and related classes form the core of the upper-level Music Technology curriculum...