Written by Chris Chronopoulos, LeafLabs, Neurotech Division Technical Director
Every now and then, LeafLabs has the pleasure of participating in outreach activities, giving back and engaging with the broader community. In the past, we’ve sponsored robotics competitions and volunteered at hackathons. This year, we decided to take advantage of MIT’s Independent Activities Period, to teach a class on something we’re passionate about: computer music.
What is computer music? Briefly, it’s an experimental branch of electronic music which leverages the power of computers to create music in the most general sense. One manifestation of computer music is the emerging tradition of laptop orchestras. These are ensembles of musicians and programmers performing on digital instruments of their own design. Inspired by previous examples like PLork, SLork, and BLork. We decided MIT should take a stab at the laptop orchestra concept. Thus, MITLork was born!
We started in December seeking support from the MIT administration. We were fortunate to land Eran Egozy, co-founder of Harmonix, as our academic sponsor. Eran teaches several music technology courses at MIT and provided early guidance on the design of the course. The Music and Theater Arts department helped us book a classroom, plus a time slot in Killian Hall for a final performance.
We decided to base the class in Pure Data, a visual programming language designed for computer music. Pure Data (or Pd for short) is free, open source, and cross-platform, so it was perfect for a pop-up IAP orchestra. The first few sessions comprised an introduction to Pd, followed by patching circles: collaborative laptop jams to encourage experiential learning.
From there, we started experimenting with human-computer interaction. We felt that expressiveness was an important part of the laptop orchestra idea: in addition to helping the musician control their sound, it made the process more transparent to the audience. So we tried several approaches: Leap Motion, game controllers, accelerometers, knobby midi controllers, and keyboards. We ended up using a variety of these inputs for the various “instruments” we created.
With our final performance approaching, we started thinking about amplification. It's become a pattern in the laptop orchestra movement to equip each musician with their own loudspeaker, typically isotropic in design, to spatialize the sound in such a way that it's obvious who is doing what. So we decided to take Stanford's approach of building our own hemispherical loudspeakers (or “hemi's”) from Ikea salad bowls. After a couple of sleepless weekends, we ended up with a fleet of 8 hemi's for our performance.
The performance took place on the last weekend of IAP. We performed three pieces: A Breeze Brings, by Scott Smallwood, is an ambient piece for ChucK. Water Hammer was a MITLork collaborative piece inspired by a faulty heating system, showcasing the various instruments that the students built over IAP. Son of the Stars was a memorial piece featuring granular synthesis from a single vocal sample. Here are some photos from our big night.
We had a lot of fun teaching the class over IAP, and we're looking forward to more MITLork adventures in the future!