Virginia Tech’s newest musical ensemble has a problem with one of its songs.
A faint cough can be heard on the track “Citadel,” briefly interrupting soprano graduate student Chelsea Crane’s vocals. It seems only the most discerning listeners would take notice of the small blemish, but to composer Ivica Ico (pronounced Ee-zo) Bukvic, it is deafening.
“In a song so serene, a cough sounds like an explosion of nuclear proportions,” he announces to the students in the room. His playful tone belies what the perfectionist composer considers a serious problem.
In the past, he explains, the audible noise would remain on the recording. Today, technology allows for different plans.
He gathers his students around his computer station and excitedly shows them a software feature that allows him to manually remove the audio track featuring the cough. When the blemish is excised, even a seasoned programmer like Bukvic is impressed.
“Pardon my French,” he asks, “but what the hell? How do they do that?”
On Dec. 4, those who attended the premiere event of the Linux Laptop Orchestra may have been asking the same questions if they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. The ensemble, abbreviated as “L2Ork,” forgoes the traditional approach to composing and performing music.
Instead, members use open-source music software called Pure Data on their computers to program a complex series of notes and chords. While computer-based music is often associated with electronic music, the orchestra’s sound is closer to its instrument-based brethren.
“The idea behind it is that you have traditional singing and traditional chords,” said junior music technology major Steven Querry, “but the chords are made by laptops instead of traditional instruments.”
“Citadel” demonstrates this fusion of traditional and avant-garde elements. Crane’s voice, the centerpiece of the song, is covered with layers of softly rippling chords. The interconnected computer programs create an organic-sounding ocean of noise around the vocals.
With the cough removed, Bukvic seems satisfied with the recording. When he emits a relieved sigh, it is understandable. Few people have had as manic a semester as the L2Ork mastermind and assistant professor of music technology in the Department of Music’s Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio.
The maiden year of the L2Ork has been demanding, according to Bukvic.
“It’s been extremely exciting and exhausting, something I learned after the fact,” he said.
He laughs as he recalls receiving e-mails from fellow American laptop orchestra leaders congratulating him on starting the program — and offering condolences.
Despite the difficult road, Bukvic has no regrets about pursuing his dream. A self-described geek, Bukvic has been fascinated by the possibilities provided by an open-source, community-driven operating system such as Linux. He has tried to study the artistic potential of such a system for years, but limited infrastructure and research opportunities prevented a full exploration.
The breakthrough in computer-based orchestras occurred at Princeton University in 2005. Bukvic’s friend and colleague Dan Truman, upon deciding that technology had finally reached the necessary capabilities, formed the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. It was the first of its kind in America and soon after another colleague, Ge Wang, established a similar ensemble at Stanford.
With the technology in place and a national network forming, the biggest remaining hurdle for Bukvic was securing the necessary funding to launch such an ambitious project.
“I started looking for grants and sponsors and I was pleased to see our work resonate with people inside and outside the VT community,” he said.
Even with a $20,000 grant from the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, the overhead was still high enough that Bukvic and a group of students spent the spring and summer researching ways to reduce costs.
One of the first major decisions was eschewing the expensive Max/MSP software used at the other universities in favor of the cheaper, open-source Pure Data. Bukvic admits that the software comes with a steeper learning curve than Max/MSP. The upside is being able to contribute back into an open-source community, said junior political science major Adam Wirdzek. This, he believes, is fundamental to the L2Ork mission.