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Va. Tech Professor Brings Minds, Machines Together In 'Laptop Orchestra'

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It all starts with a single, maybe even commonplace sound. A rustle of wind in some leaves, or a car window opening.

Ivica Bukvic, professor of music at Virginia Tech, is a collector of these noises.

"We've recorded a lot of sounds of water," he says. "I spent one summer just walking in shallow water recording hours and hours worth of sounds of water."

Bukvic has a database of such noises, all of which can be played using a device of his design. It's a half sphere that lies flat full of speakers. If you looked at it and said it looks like a salad bowl, you'd be right.

"Ikea salad bowls, to be exact," Bukvic says. "We have basically cut holes in that salad bowl and embedded little speakers so that the sound can truly emanate in every direction at the same time."

The device is connected to a laptop and then played with Nintendo Wii video game controllers, so when Bukvic waves those controllers in a certain way, he can change the sound.

On the initial try, it might not exactly yield Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but when multiple people, each with their own device and their own laptop, join in, the real concert begins.

"This is actually the first piece ever written for the laptop orchestra," Bukvic says, playing a recording of a laptop orchestra. "And in many ways, one could equate it to a contemporary version of a traditional aria."

"The laptop orchestra has no tradition, so the fact that I have musical training doesn't make me any better than somebody that didn't have any musical training," he continues. "We have political science, math, biology, computer science, engineering..."

Bukvic has also started working on laptop pieces with the local Boys and Girls Club in Roanoke, Va. They don't have formal musical training either, but with the salad bowl-laptop-Nintendo Wii-instrument thing, they've created their own pieces.

"One thing the laptop orchestra has really changed in me is observing the difference between sound and noise," says Bukvic. "And therefore noise in music actually disappears once you actually start thinking about it in a different way."

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