Combining computer programming, musical ingenuity, and rousing performances, the Linux Orchestra at Virginia Tech has been making the best kind of noise since 2009. As the brainchild of Ivica Ico Bukvic, assistant professor of music, the so-called “L2Ork” utilizes Nintendo Wii videogame console motion technology and Linux-based software to create sounds that can be skillfully blended into music. The huge range of sounds produced by the technology is an indication of the platform’s potential to produce a rather unusual but fascinating kind of music.

In simple terms, each motion or button on the Wiimote and Wii Nunchuk controllers results in a different sound depending upon the instrument programmed into the personal laptop stations each performer utilizes. The L2Ork can produce the sound, of any classical instrument and enables the composer to create music on a limitless canvas. Classical composition can be created by using the L2Ork. Consequently, the platform offers those who may otherwise never have the opportunity to perform to be immersed in the creative music creation process.

The L2Ork has its beginnings in Bukvic’s enthusiasm for Linux and the work done at Princeton and Stanford Universities, where researchers created laptop orchestras. Utilizing the free, open-source Linux operating system, Dr. Bukvic envisioned the L2Ork as an affordable form of the laptop orchestra that would still be able to function easily and efficiently. Working alongside Dr. Tom Martin, associate professor of electrical and chemical engineering, Bukvic began to seek funding for the L2Ork and managed to secure support from a number of diverse groups and organizations, including the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, other university departments, and corporate sponsors. From there, the orchestra began to firmly take shape. The project first took off in May 2009, when faculty and student researchers began to work out the technological aspects of the orchestra including constructing hemispherical speakers for the L2Ork, constructed by seven undergraduate researchers to interface with the Linux Orchestra software.

Some may see the L2Ork and deem it simply an upgraded version of Guitar Hero, but it is more akin to traditional ensembles than a video game. Each person involved must work in conjunction with other performers or the musicality of the piece is compromised. It sounds difficult—and it is—but the software benefits from the vast customizability of Linux. The difficulty level of the system can be adjusted—first-timers can perform complex pieces with help from the computers and veterans can turn off all assistance. For example for a new user, the program can complete cues or simplify the input sensitivity. The beginner might only need to simply move the Wiimote controller, whereas an advanced user would control every nuance of the instrument to perform the same piece, given that they have had a lot of practice.

Since its inception, the L2Ork has enlisted the skills of a large number of undergraduates in academic disciplines ranging from the predictable—computer science, music technology, or theater arts—to majors such as chemistry and political science. Some serve as programmers, some as dedicated performers, and some as both. The result of these talented students’ efforts is a cohesive group that is constantly developing and improving.

This opportunity also serves as a medium for the L2Ork students to engage with the community and bring music to the Roanoke Valley area. Last year, for example, the L2Ork worked with ten enthusiastic and focused fifth-grade students in the Boys and Girls Club. Virginia Tech students instructed the fifth graders in the basics of the Linux Orchestra, slowly allowing the children more and more freedom in composition and experimentation. Bukvic felt that his engagement with the Boys and Girls Club was “one of the most rewarding experiences” of his career, also noting his experience with L2Ork at last year’s spring Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio (DISIS) event. L2Ork plans to do another round of the program with the Boys and Girls club for the spring 2011 semester and will perform with them again as a part of the Spring DISIS event.

L2Ork has been busy traveling to universities all over the country. In 2010, the Linux Orchestra visited universities including Purdue, Duke, Indiana, and North Carolina Chapel Hill. They also performied in the National Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) Conference in Miami, Florida, and will be performing at DISIS in the spring. The L2Ork hopes to go international as well and share its unique sound. In May 2011, the L2Ork plans to tour Linz, Budapest, Ljubljana, Berlin, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Paris. In addition, to keeping up with practicing and touring, L2Ork even plans to record a new CD.

Lap top orchestra group L2Ork performing in the hallway of Squires Student Center.

Lap top orchestra group L2Ork performing in the hallway of Squires Student Center.

Considering the youth of the organization, the Linux Orchestra has seen impressive growth thus far. Within two years the faculty and student members of the L2Ork worked to build a vague idea into tangible results: recording opportunities, sold out venues, and engaged children in the Boys and Girls Club. Considering the low cost, wide range of options, and refreshing depth of musical possibilities, L2Ork appears set to continue innovating music and entertainment as the creative musicians behind it push the traditional boundaries of ensemble further.