Current Issue

Jan. 16, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 6


Musical machines

Are we ready for orchestras composed of computers and robots?

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the January 16, 2013, issue

Someone in Vietnam with the screen name “yipiehk” is ­picking out “Amazing Grace” with the Ocarina 2 app on a mobile-device-turned-musical-instrument, and so am I. It’s easy; just blow into the microphone and finger four “keys” on the screen (lights guide your fingers), like a digital flute. We’re both terrible, to be honest, but in addition to making music, the app shows me yipiehk’s location on a globe; I click a button marked “Love” to send him or her some encouragement.

The Ocarina app being played in the Forbidden City in Beijing by its creator, Ge Wang *08, has been downloaded more than 8 million times.
The Ocarina app being played in the Forbidden City in Beijing by its creator, Ge Wang *08, has been downloaded more than 8 million times.

As I stumble to the finish, Ocarina tells me that I have earned 12 “breath points” and played 35 notes. So far, I am 41 percent of the way to mastering “Amazing Grace,” but I may move on to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Claire de Lune,” purchase a more difficult song (anything from Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” to Justin Bieber’s “Baby”), or just noodle on my own. When I am done, I can share my performances with friends via Facebook or Twitter.

Ocarina may have selected my performance to broadcast to anyone else using the app, just as it sent yipiehk’s performance to me. Meanwhile, a feature on the app shows me that “michaelreid1994” in Scotland has picked up “Amazing Grace,” as has “darengasa” in Italy. Within a few seconds, 33 Ocarina users around the world “love” darengasa’s rendition. It’s an international group hug.

Ocarina, a 99-cent app downloaded more than 8 million times, was created by Ge (pronounced “Guh”) Wang *08, the co-founder, chief technology officer, and chief creative officer of Smule, which also makes nearly a dozen other music apps. They include Magic Piano (a kind of Guitar Hero in which anyone with a smartphone can be a piano prodigy), Glee Karaoke (which puts the fun of a karaoke club in your pocket), and I Am T-Pain (which lets you distort your voice like the famous rapper). The company’s name comes from Sonic Mule, a character in Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi Foundation Trilogy who is able to bend the minds of others. (“What’s in a name?” Wang asks. “A lot.”) He now considers himself an “accredited entrepreneur.”

In addition to running Smule, Wang, who emigrated to the United States from China when he was 9, is an assistant professor at Stanford Uni­versity’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), referred to by everyone as “karma.” He directs Stanford’s Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) and recently formed an adjunct Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPhO) to capitalize on the new handheld technology. Both are modeled after the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), which relies on software Wang wrote as a Ph.D. student. Teams of students type diligently on their laptops or phones to create unusual sounds, which the conductor builds into a musical whole. Many of these compositions, which can include weird fugues, clicks, hums, or sounds like running water, are much more eclectic than an old gospel classic such as “Amazing Grace.” To the uninitiated, it may well sound odd, yet it can be hypnotizing, if not necessarily ­toe-tapping.

For a small, cutting-edge department, CCRMA occupies palatial real estate on the Stanford campus. Its home, known as The Knoll, was designed to be the president’s mansion. When a visitor asks directions outside the music department on the main quad, a faculty member turns wistfully and says, “Ah, yes, the fools on the hill.”

Wang hears this story and laughs. “That’s a compliment — I guess.” The music department’s view of CCRMA, he says, ranges from detached amusement to genuine curiosity.

The Knoll is an old building full of new gadgets. Wang occupies a small pentagonal office that opens onto a garden where roses still are blooming in early October; the office is cluttered with a huge computer monitor, a hard hat, a Rocket Man helmet, and a stack of 40 MacBooks, still in their boxes, for the laptop orchestra. A poster on his door shows Wang wearing a red unitard, his maestro’s mane of black hair flowing over his shoulders, and he eagerly shows off a Smule video in which he runs along a sunlit road in slow motion while someone plays the theme from Chariots of Fire on Magic Piano. Ge Wang, in case this hasn’t gotten across, is quite a showman.

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