Madeline Huberth could play Beethoven with the best of them. She studied cello in college and planned on going professional.
But then she started to get shooting pains in her left hand when she practiced. Her fingers were tingling. And surgery did nothing to help.
“I started losing muscle mass in my hand,” Huberth says.
By graduation, she couldn’t lift her pinky anymore or stretch her index finger back to play B flat.
“It became very apparent at the end of college that I couldn’t pursue performance anymore,” she says.
Huberth threw herself into studying the science of music. She’s now a Ph.D. student at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where she’s become adept at a new musical instrument: her laptop.
“Using a laptop, you can do anything that isn’t even physically possible,” she explains. “You can have an incredibly wide vibrato. Or you could simulate the sound of a string that’s the length of the building,” to produce an incredibly low pitch.
Today, Huberth is the teaching assistant for the Stanford Laptop Orchestra. This is a class that meets Wednesday nights during the spring semester. Students write code to create their own instrument on the computer, which they will score into a full orchestral work by the end of the semester.
Several students in the class have a musical background, like Huberth, while several others come from computer science or engineering.
“I studied physics and I have kind of a tech background,” graduate student Tim O’Brien says. “But I loved music all my life, so it kind of combines everything.”
At a recent class meeting, he and 13 other students sat on rows of meditation pillows, fixing code on their laptops and fiddling with speakers made out of IKEA salad bowls.
They rehearsed ensemble pieces that they will perform at an upcoming chamber concert, and demonstrated their individual solo instruments.
O’Brien began his demo by taking a big breath and blowing softly into his laptop. Then he jingled his car keys over the keyboard and tapped his water bottle. He programmed his computer’s microphone to translate these human actions into a morphed, electronic sound. The class loved it. And so did the orchestra director.
“That was nothing short of magical,” says Ge Wang, assistant professor of music at Stanford. “Tim was able to really find this mix where human meets machine. And in that way, it was like this dialogue. But what came out of the computer was a sound that would not come anywhere except through a computer.”
Wang and Huberth also like when students get physical with the medium. For example, one student is programming an armband to produce sounds when he stretches or clenches his hand. Other students use Gametraks, little black boxes originally used as a video game control, that have two red retractable cables. Students connect them to their laptops and program them to produce different notes or rhythms when they pull them up, down, left or right.
“We can rapidly prototype physical gestures, interactions and map them to sound,” Wang explains. “It enables a way to quickly explore a whole world of new sounds, interactions, and performance practices.”
Wang says this makes for a better experience for the audience – one that is both pleasing to listen to and also interesting to watch.
He says this is one of the ways laptop orchestra is evolving as a medium. Wang was a founding member of the first laptop orchestra, launched at Princeton University 10 years ago. He started the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, known affectionately as Slork, in 2008. Today, there are more than 70 laptop orchestras, but Wang says they’re still really just beginning.
“Ten years may be a long time in computer years. To really make it into an art form, it’s still quite early,” Wang says.
But some more advanced laptop musicians are pushing boundaries. Madeline Huberth helped form a chamber group called Sidelobe, which meets year-round and works on reinterpreting earlier compositions, choosing from a young but growing library of more than 300 works.
“We’ve been pulling pieces from the canon, from the laptop orchestra canon,” Huberth says. “Pieces that have done very well, that have been written by more seasoned composers, and we’re giving these performances new life.”
The biggest challenge laptop musicians face is the same challenge all artists confront, Wang says.
“Whether a violin, cello, piano or a laptop, we’re all looking for a different way to represent that spark of humanity,” he says.
The Stanford Laptop Orchestra will perform a chamber music concert on April 30 and a full orchestral concert on May 30. The events are both free and open to the public.