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Members of the Virginia Tech Laptop Orchestra, which performed at this year's state fair, use Wii video remotes and laptops to perform music written by the group's founder.
Virginia Tech student Jordan Hatchett (front) performs with the Virginia Tech Laptop Orchestra at the state fair yesterday. Members use Wii remotes and computers to perform music created by group founder Ivica Bukvic.
BY JONAS BEALS
Perhaps the State Fair of Virginia was not the best venue for a spoken-word orchestral piece about the radioactive wasteland that is Chernobyl.
But it happened, and the 800-pound pumpkins must have loved it.
The presentation of the song, called "Half-Life," should earn the Virginia Tech Linux Laptop Orchestra a spot in the sideshow with the bearded lady and the guy who puts nails through his face.
The group creates ambient orchestral soundscapes by combining custom software with Nintendo Wiimotes and Tai Chi moves.
They are serious, and it is seriously amazing.
Imagine a dozen people onstage playing air cellos, except those cellos can make any sound imaginable. That is the laptop orchestra, the brainchild of assistant professor of music technology Ivica Bukvic.
Bukvic created the software, directs the orchestra and performs alongside the students.
"I was attracted to the concept because it is such an unknown thing," said Bukvic, who started the orchestra in 2009. His goal was to merge technology and art in a way that would be accessible to everyone.
Sophomore Brian Hess is a music technology major and plays percussion when he's not swinging a Wiimote. He's been in the orchestra for only about two months.
"We've all caught on pretty quickly," he said.
Each player stands in front of a laptop that sends them numerical signals. The player then matches that number by adjusting their Wiimote, and they follow the tempo set by the computer or by the director. In some arrangements, there is even room for improvisation.
The orchestra played four pieces written by Bukvic: "Rain," "Serene," "Half-Life" and "Citadel." The sound was largely gentle and sweeping, with the occasional digital pop and bleep. It's far from a traditional orchestra sound, by design.
Taken with the visual action onstage, it becomes a sound of the imagination: perhaps the whoosh of bending air with your bare hands, or the wobble of ripples on a pond.
Bukvic and his students may be at the forefront of a new way to think about and perform music.
There is a strong do-it-yourself ethic among the players. They use omni-directional speakers made from overturned Ikea salad bowls. The software is open-source, available for anyone to use or modify.
Musical knowledge is not a prerequisite for playing in the orchestra. The musicians' majors range from political science to biology.
Unlike other computer music projects (yes, there are other laptop orchestras), the Virginia Tech version adds natural, sometimes unpredictable human movement to the equation. These musicians are not just pushing buttons or tapping at keyboards, they are performing--creating sound by moving their hands as any musician would.
It is not unlike the Theremin, an electric instrument invented by Russian professor Leon Theremin. That instrument is played by waving your hands in front of two antenna. You might recognize the Theremin sound from old horror movies or the "Star Trek" theme song.
Like a regular orchestra, the players' movements are linked rhythmically to become a choreographed dance. It's hard to tell whether the movement is in service of the music, or vice versa.
"It's the concept of combining the mind and body with music," said senior Adam Wirdzek.
The orchestra has toured the U.S. and Europe, and Bukvic has nurtured the technology to a point where anyone can use it.
With such stability, other composers can write for the orchestra. He hopes to perform some new pieces this spring. "This is a humble beginning for us," he said. "We've reached some milestones very successfully."
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036