Sparks (Max/MSP Composition for Laptop Orchestra)


Instrumentation: Laptop Orchestra
Duration: 20-30 min
Commissioned by: CLOrk Laptop Orchestra
Composition date: 2014
World Premiere: March 6th 2014 – Montreal.

The composition consists of a conductor patch and three ensemble patches (figure 1). The ensemble patches are nearly identical in programming. The only aspect that is different is the preloaded audio samples and the generated sounds in each ensemble. Each ensemble’s physical location in the room corresponds spatially to the loudspeakers closer to that group. In addition to this sonic separation of the different ensembles, custom-built sound-active LED lights are given to each member of the orchestra. Each has a different colour LED that corresponded with their ensemble. These LED lights lid up based on the amplitude change in the sound.

Figure 1 – Room Setup

The composition is built on exploration of 21 “cues.” Each one is to evoke a different emotion (figure 2). A timer ticks down the remaining time left for each instructed cue. The tools are a set of audio effects that the performer can change. These include delay, flanger, EQ, degrade (minimizing the sampling rate and bit rate), reverberation, and a special effect called “sound tap.” The sound tap (figure 3) feature enables the performer to take a feed and do live MAX/MSP patching or if they like route the audio to their preferred audio software (using various inter-audio programs like soundflower) for audio manipulation. This opens up endless possibilities.

Here are some examples of the various cues instructed to the performers. The second cue gives the chance for the performer to play with transient sounds and use delay to modify it. The third cue, gives instructions to the performer to play with equalization only. One cue consists of only reverse sounds.

Figure 2 – Cue List

There is an attempt to do a 3-voice fugue from cue 13 to 18. Ensemble 1 starts the subject, which travels in the proceeding cues as each ensemble expands and provides a counter-subject. Then there is a sequential middle fugue part where a pattern is repeated and finally the subject returns in unison. This was inspired by traditional classical fugal structure of composers like Bach.

For the 20th cue, there is a short “zap” sound that plays first slowly at a pulse of 20bpm across the different ensembles but then the conductor changes this pulse and all the computers follow him/her.

All the sounds up to cue 21 are given audio samples that were produced by the composer. For cue 21, the performer’s computer generates different oscillator types (sawtooth, sinusoid).

The composition ends on cue 22, which is the muting of all sounds at the same time for everyone.

The conductor patch does not generate any sound but sends precisely timed triggers to each individual ensemble using the UDP network protocol. The triggers occur sometimes in unison and sometime at different times. This creates the potential to have the ability for this computer-based orchestra to play the same pattern in unison at the same time. The conductor has the ability to change the timings of each cue on the fly. He can also change control parameters (like cue 20th explained earlier). There is also an emergency stop-audio and start-audio button that send multiple messages to the orchestra if everything goes wrong.

Figure 3 – The “Sound Tap”

The conductor also monitors the network activity. There is a Network Distribution Room subpatch (figure 4) where all the communication to the different computers can be monitored and troubleshot if need be.

The performers need a version of MAX/MSP 6 (either full version or runtime) to perform this composition. They also need a digital to analog audio convertor with multiple outputs to be able to connect the LED lights. If the performers have MIDI controllers, there are patch points implemented in the patch where they can control various sliders and knobs with their device.

I come from a classical contemporary composer background and writing for multiple computers was something new to me. I wanted a way to incorporate my traditional studies such as controlled form, engagement of the audience in this medium. I remember my first meeting with founder and director of Concordia Laptop Orchestra (CLOrk), where I asked him if there are any limitations and he mentioned “nothing.” This opened up a world of creative possibilities. However, this was a problem also for me because it opened up endless possibilities that were hard to choose from or pinpoint. I decided to begin the conceptual ideas apiece of paper. I started from the big picture writing down a structure and then finding ways of implementing it in the patch. Working from the macro to micro.

Figure 4 – network distribution system

Coming from an acoustic composer background I wanted to transmit as much as possible to the audience a visual as well as sonic indications about what each performer was doing. This was done by panning of sounds to the speakers closest to each ensemble, combined with the visual feedback of the sound-active custom LED lights for each individual performer.

The act of composing is often a torturous process for me. The end result and performance however outweighs the process. This time it was particularly difficult at times but also rewarding as well. As a composer for this type of ensemble not only do you have to compose the music but you have to also build an instrument. You are programming software, which needs to be bug free and working.