How tai chi and a Linux laptop can create a tiny, powerful orchestra

1 Aug 2018

Dr Ivica Ico Bukvic, founder and director of the Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio (DISIS) at Virginia Tech. Image: Virginia Tech

Dr Ivica Ico Bukvic of Virginia Tech is transcending art and science with the world’s first Linux-based laptop orchestra.

Electronic music has improved substantially in the past few decades, but the work being undertaken by Dr Ivica Ico Bukvic of Virginia Tech is taking things to a whole new level.

In 2005, Bukvic received his doctorate in music composition with cognates in computer music programming and music theory from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

Prior to joining Virginia Tech, he taught at the Oberlin Conservatory and University of Cincinnati.

Now, he is the founder and director of the Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio (DISIS) at Virginia Tech.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I am sure my father, who is a retired engineer, played a role in this process. Another was observing the world through discipline-agnostic lenses.

In part inspired by Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, regardless of the source or context, every action can be broken into a binary tree. As a result, I see everything around me as a binary network of possibilities, actions and outcomes.

I see modalities simply as different ways of perceiving and interacting with this network. More importantly, I see the separation between STEM and other disciplines, including the arts, as an educational dead end.

There is science in arts and arts in science and, as a result, my creative and educational focus is in the integrative design, engineering, arts and science (IDEAS).

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My research involves a contemporary intermedia ensemble, Linux Laptop Orchestra (L2Ork, pronounced as lork). It mixes traditional orchestra with increasingly accessible human-computer interaction technologies.

This is for the purpose of exploring expressive power of gesture, communal interaction, discipline-agnostic environment and the multidimensionality of arts.

Founded in May 2009, L2Ork is part of the interdisciplinary initiative by DISIS and the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology.

As the world’s first Linux-based laptop orchestra incorporating extensive study of gesture and tai chi choreography, L2Ork offers optimal infrastructure for creative research at minimal cost.

By providing a seamless integration of arts and sciences, it is in part designed to provide access to an integrative approach to education.

Since its inception, L2Ork has helped start seven laptop orchestras in North and South America, many of which rely heavily on its affordable design.

L2Ork’s infrastructural backbone, the Pd-L2Ork (aka Purr-Data) visual programming environment with its unique K-12 (kindergarten through to the 12th grade) learning module, has been utilised in dozens of K-12 maker workshops, including the Raspberry Pi Orchestra summer gifted programme introduced in 2014.

In autumn 2016, the ensemble introduced the world’s first professional Raspberry Pi orchestra.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

On a societal scale, I see my research focusing on improving the human condition. It aims to tackle this challenge with a multi-pronged approach, from improving education and access, to empowerment through open-ended creativity inherent in the arts.

It could also help build communities and design new technologies and better tools to broaden human cognitive bandwidth and independence.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

This offers new ways to represent data through sound, lowering cognitive load in time-sensitive tasks and big-data scenarios, reimagining education and exploring open-ended creativity rooted in STEM.

It also sees disciplines as overlapping and cross-pollinating catalysts, rather than politicised artificial boundaries.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Cutting through the STEM red tape that limits the understanding of the importance and impact of integrative and holistic education.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Plenty, as I am sure is also the case with just about any area of research.

To address them, my goal is to raise awareness by generating high-profile research that questions the current status quo and promotes possible future follow-on research trajectories.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Continuing to dig deeper in the research whitespace that has been left conspicuously underexplored, like the exocentric spatial sonification.