Merging musicality and coding, the Santa Clara Laptop Orchestra is part of a worldwide movement to open ears by challenging traditional notions of instrumentation and composition.
Imagine this: The presidential primaries are in full swing, and the Santa Clara Laptop Orchestra (SCLOrk) has chosen to mark the occasion with a tragicomic piece on the state of democracy through the lens of Mozart’s “Musical Dice Game.” Ensemble members vote frantically to decide what the next measure will be, responding to prompts like “Transpose prettier?” and “Make Mozart great again?” All the while, a supposedly fair conductor counts their votes at will. The melody accelerates until the ensemble’s onstage speakers build to a collective whirr, then collapse into silence. The system has crashed.
“It was just insane button mashing mixed with social commentary. I loved it,” raves former orchestra member Sarah Olive-McStay, reflecting on “Mozart and the Elections,” presented at SCLOrk’s spring 2016 concert. It’s fair to say that their output may not be what you initially envision as a musical composition.
SCLOrk’s work does involve traditional music and musicality, but coding plays a significant part as well. The ensemble utilizes SuperCollider, a programming language with an emphasis on audio synthesis, to develop pieces. Electronic music professor Bruno Ruviaro and his students aren’t just crafting harmonic unity; they’re constructing new musical worlds to inhabit and to cohabitate in. Their work builds upon the shared experience of similar ensembles, among them the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk), and Virginia Tech’s Linux Laptop Orchestra (L2Ork).
Ruviaro, a native of São Paulo, outlines an eclectic musical upbringing, where Bach and Bartók entered his ears alongside Brazilian bossa nova. “I’m told that as a toddler, I’d grab vinyl records from lower shelves in the house and literally scratch them on the floor as if they were toys on wheels,” he shares.
He double-majored in piano performance and composition at Brazil’s University of Campinas, before his burgeoning interest in electronic music led him to Dartmouth, where he pursued graduate studies in electroacoustic music. His experience was similar at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where his PhD studies granted him his first experience with a laptop orchestra. In 2010, SLOrk performed his composition “Intellectual Improperty 0.6,” a piece culled from hundreds of micro samples he conducted by sending players instructions via instant message. Ruviaro was eventually lured down the road to Santa Clara University, which presented him with an enticing opportunity to build an electronic music program from scratch. He formed SCLOrk with his students in spring 2012.
“It is very different,” explains Ruviaro when asked how composing for laptop orchestra differs from traditional composition. “It involves sound imagination in a decentralized way…I can’t just write notes. I have to imagine the sounds, the playing interface, the performative actions, and train the player on all this.” As his academic work articulates, the laptop not only opens up new musical possibilities, it challenges the very definition of what constitutes a musical instrument.
Recordings from SCLOrk’s spring 2016 performance showcase a wealth of diversity. “SCLOrkestra Blues” is the most traditional, sounding like a computer sharing its mechanical woes over skittering drums and plunky keys. “Ave Theremin” follows a singer as she attempts to teach an outer-space visitor Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” resulting in a surprisingly touching galactic exchange.
“I loved the idea that a composition could be structured as a game or a set of rules rather than a page of perfectly replicable sounds,” recalls Olive-McStay, who was tasked with teaching her alien counterpart how to sing.
“Participating in laptop orchestra opened my ears and mind to recognize music potential in everyday objects,” adds former SCLOrk member Tina Traboulsi. Her point is well-founded: she played an amplified watering can during the ensemble’s performance.
Traboulsi’s sentiment also offers an optimistic counterpoint for those who may write off SCLOrk as too high-concept. Ruviaro’s personal SoundCloud page seems to support this take, with field recordings capturing the clanks and clatters of a Caltrain passenger train leaving a station and the varying pace of drops of hot tea returning from steeper to cup. In that sense, SCLOrk furthers the idea that anything—even that which people experience daily without a passing thought—offers potential for musicality.
Written by Brandon Roos
Print Photography by Arabela Espinoza
Performance Photography by Joanne H. Lee/Santa Clara University
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.1 “Tech”