When research meets music: BLOrk

Published: March 5, 2013

Interdisciplinary discovery doesn’t always happen in the lab. Sometimes it integrates technology and musicians in an ensemble setting to provide live interaction, as in the case of the Boulder Laptop Orchestra (BLOrk). 

After computer science doctoral student Charles Dietrich and Associate Professor John Gunther of the College of Music met at a campus STEM poster presentation in the fall of 2012, the encounter led to new artistic collaboration through the College of Music’s BLOrk ensemble.

The concept of a laptop orchestra builds on the research of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), which began in 2006. CU-Boulder's BLOrk is offered as an "Electronic Music Ensemble" for credit through the College of Music for both music and non-music majors.

The BLOrk ensemble partners with leading artists in the fields of music, visual arts and technology to showcase creative innovations in both art and technology. The ensemble consists of performers with a laptop, a hemispherical speaker and a variety of control devices. These can include traditional instruments, MIDI controllers, video game accessories, bodily movement or the performer’s voice.

The hemispherical speakers are designed to project sound in a way similar to that of an acoustic instrument. This allows performers to hear and interact with each other and the electronic sounds in a more organic way.

In the recent performance that premiered a new instrument by Dietrich, astrophysics doctoral student Chris Chronopoulos contributed a work based on data that was originally generated from the sun. The recorded information was cleaned, and then raised to an octave and tonality that humans could easily hear, and turned into sounds played on a keyboard.

"It's been an exciting and challenging process developing this ensemble and the students come away with a real positive experience,” said Gunther. “We feel like we are always working on the edge of technology and performance. And now, with our collaboration with the sciences, even more possibilities lie ahead."

When Dietrich and Gunter met, Dietrich had recently completed a side project to make sounds from muscle activation energies generated during walking, based on his work in the Correll Lab in the Department of Computer Science. They discussed a collaboration based on his research into motion capture and gestural interfaces.

“I developed a musical instrument that is controlled by hand gestures. The musician can make notes and control the pitch,” said Dietrich. “I decided early on that I wanted to make an instrument with a great degree of flexibility so that the musicians could use it as they would a traditional instrument. The challenge is to make the instrument’s control gestures intuitive and repeatable so that the musicians can learn to perform with it.”

As part of its repertoire, members of the BLOrk ensemble perform original compositions by students and faculty -- exploring the application of traditional sound processing technology as well as the integration of programming languages such as MAX, Jitter and Super Collider.  

BLOrk is the ensemble-in-residence of the ATLAS Institute’s Center for Media, Art and Performance and is led by College of Music faculty John Gunther and John Drumheller. Gunther was the recipient of a "Chancellor's Award for Excellence in STEM Education" which has helped make the collaboration with scientists Dietrich and Chronopolous possible.

Images courtesy ATLAS Institute.