An Interview With Perry Cook by Nick Hwang on behalf of ElectroTap at the
Symposium for Laptop Orchestras and Ensembles, Baton Rouge, Louisiana – April 2012
We met while Louisiana State University was hosting the first Symposium for Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras (SLEO). I had to opportunity ask him about the origin of laptop orchestra, the origin of the use of hemispherical speakers, the expansion of other handheld musical devices, his musical background, how his curiosity sent him back to school, what he does when he wants to chill.
Hwang: “So we’re with Perry Cook at SLEO and I’m just asking a bunch of questions. Let’s just start with who you are, and what do you currently do?”
Cook: “Let’s see, I’m Perry Cook. I’m an Emeritus professor at Princeton University in computer science with a joint appointment in music. I officially retired from there a couple years ago, but I keep Emeritus status. And was actually just back there a week ago to do a piece for PLOrk, and generally what I do is I live in Southern Oregon. I built a studio of my dreams where I house all of my weird controllers and computers and backup discs and that kind of stuff, and I work from there a lot. I compose, and I write. I’m still trying to finishing up a book that I started in 2003, when I got a Guggenheim fellowship on technology and the voice, and I consult and advise a lot of universities on, actually, on the faculty at Arizona State University in their Arts Media Engineering Program; at California Institute of the Arts in their Music Technology program; at Stanford, my old lab at CCRMA where I advise and work with them on some archeo-acoustics projects, very ancient sites and instruments. And a good amount of my time is taken up with Smule, which is originally called Sonic Mule, but it’s an iPhone and iPad IOS musical app starting company started up three years ago with now over 60 employees. Ge Wang, my graduate student from Princeton, who is now head of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra co-founded Smule and hired up a bunch of my students, and I serve as an advisor to them and do a little bit DSP hacking and some intellectual property work and stuff like that. And just chill out and try to be creative and that’s what I do these days…”
Hwang: “So, now, when you’re describing like chilling out, how much of the time is actually spent chilling out compared to consulting or going around advising these other schools and departments?”
Cook: “Let’s see, I don’t know. Chilling out for me is cooking, which I always like to do, and so I cook a little more than I used to have time for. And where I live in southern Oregon is a really rich local farming area. So there’s pear orchards and apples and all sorts of that kind of northwestern stuff. But there’s lots of hippie farmer families that grow organic food and there’s organic beef and lamb and then there’s llamas– they make sweaters with and things like that. So it just a nice, cool area. It’s not the kind of Oregon that most people associate with Portland and the coast where it’s really rainy, so weather’s nice.
And so ‘chilling out’ for me is cooking and eating and composing. Actually thinking about music that, you know, I want to listen to or create. Still building interfaces. Part of my process of moving all of my stuff from multiple states to this one complex in Oregon that I have now is fixing a lot of my old instruments. The stuff that I built years ago, some of them remarkably, I get them out and they still work. Some of them I get out and they don’t work at all, and I get to try to figure out if they ever worked.
Also, I must add that for me, I’ve always been of the nature that if I don’t create some kind of music and write some code and solder at least once a week I get kind of squirrelly.
So, I love to solder, I like to make my own cables and fix my own cables and fix my instruments. And I love to write code. I write code a lot. Just because for me it’s expressive, and cool, and interesting and sometimes I’m trying to answer questions that people ask me about ChucK specifically, and other languages. And sometimes I’m trying to hook together systems to see some new feature or Processing or some new library is useful for laptop orchestras or interactive things. And I’ve got a whole list of old projects lab notebook: installations I want to do and art works I want to make, so I’m usually thinking about those.
And I’ve been playing a lot more guitar and singing more. I go through cycles of singing. Every ten years or so I’ll go through a major era of singing seriously. And, so, I’m sort of in another era with that I think. And so I don’t know if you would call that ‘chilling out’ or not. It’s the kind of stuff I wouldn’t have had as much time for if I were still full time faculty at Princeton, but it’s stuff that I’ve always done.”
Hwang: “So you mention voice and guitar. Were they part of your early music background or could you describe some of your musical background?”
Cook: “Yeah, I sang from as young as I can remember. I grew up Baptist in Missouri and so church choir singing as a little bitty kid. And I entered my first talent show when I was like seven or eight and won– singing and playing baritone ukulele that my mother had taught me a song and I would play it. So I was always, my mother and my grandmother, that whole side are big kind of performer people, so I inherited that from them for sure. And so singing was always a big deal, and then keyboards were a fairly big deal. We had a piano and an organ. My brother, seven years older than me, played and he taught me a few chords when I was young and I was off and running.
And then I took piano lessons, and I played in every band and sang in every choir and acted in theatre. I wasn’t real sporty, I actually was able to count marching band as a P.E. credit. So in high school I got out of having to run around the track and vomit with the P.E. team by marching for miles and miles carrying a trombone.
And then I went to Conservatory: University in Missouri Kansas City. Many of your ElectroTap boys are alums of that department. And yeah, so I started there in ’73: majored in trombone and voice, and discovered the electronic music studio there, which was an analog studio at the time. Two big walls of Moogs. And worked there, and was actually employed there fixing patch cords, soldering.”
Hwang: “While you were a student or-”
Cook: “While I was a student.”
Cook: “Yea and so I did that and then basically the studio kind of captivated my attention so much that I ended up not finishing my music degree at that time, in that decade. And went off and started working for a company that owned a lot of theaters around Kansas City. And so I was a sound engineer. And did some studio work and a lot of live sound stuff. And did that for 5 years and then realized that I really wanted to go back and figure out mathematically what acoustics was about. What the Fourier transform was. So I knew that they would hire consultants who would come into one of our theaters and they’d bring a spectrum analyzer and the spectrum analyzer would tell them what to do, and I wanted to know what was up with that.
So I went back to school at UMKC to get an engineering degree. And, sort of peripheral to getting that whole new degree in engineering, I was able to finish my music degree. And then by that time I was kind of spoiled for having any kind of real job, and so I applied to graduate schools and got into Stanford and went to Stanford as an EE PhD student but did almost all of my work in CCRMA. And hung out there for ten years, four and a half of them getting my PhD and the other five and a half doing things around the Bay area including singing a lot. I sang with the California Bach Society, I sang as a soloist around a lot. Did a bunch of early music records that were released as a CD series on Lyrachord. Did a lot of engineering.
Did a startup company that made sound cards and chips. Built a physical modeling chip that could do a hundred and twenty-eight flutes at the same time if you wanted to or delay lines of any kind. And then it also stayed affiliated with CCRMA so I always had at least like a quarter of an appointment there, where I was teaching a class or co-advising or doing things like that. And then after about ten years in the Bay area, moved to Princeton and took my position there. And there I met Dan Trueman who was a student, came as a graduate student and we hit it off immediately and within a year or so we were making, putting sensors on his bow and his fiddle and building spherical speakers. And the rest is witness-able here basically. The idea. Curtis
Cook: “Plus more.”
Hwang: “So I think right now, there’s a discussion at SLEO of what’s coming next. What do you see as coming next?”
Cook: “I don’t know. I never have known this idea of the long-term vision or being a futurist and predicting. It’s funny because the great futurists is they’re quoted quite often like Ray Kurzweil and stuff saying, ‘in five years speech recognition will be solved’. And the first time he said that was in the seventies basically. So we know that’s not solved. It’s solved to the point where you can find your luggage on United Airline without ever talking to a human as effectively as you can find your luggage at all. But it’s not solved. We don’t talk to machines and they understand like a good secretary would when we’re in a bad mood and we have a cold what we’re saying.
So in general I hate being put in the position of a futurist. I find one of the ironies with the notion of a laptop orchestra is the word orchestra is fairly anachronistic for modern times. It’s used often as a gimmick or a tool to say it’s ‘a lot of something’. Which is kind of what the laptop orchestra, and the idea was that we’re going to have an orchestral model where we sit on a stage and each person has a speaker and they’re responsible for their own sound and they control their sound. And that’s kind of cool, but to the average person walking around in the street, they don’t, you know, most undergraduates at this university probably don’t know what an orchestra is. Really. They may never have been to an orchestra concert. And that’s sort of interesting. And then I think also the double-edged irony of the term laptop orchestra is I believe ‘laptop’ may become a term at some near date where it’s quaint as well.
And so already we see that a good number of the ensembles, you’re included, at this conference, the laptop may be computing but the controller may be a pad or a game controller or a Wii or something like that. So, and it’s certainly confusing for the public. What is an orchestra? What is a laptop orchestra? What do they do? What is it? So what’s next is, I mean, certainly the one thing that’s unfolded for me that’s been amazing and wonderful is the experience with Smule, and how many people are making music at some very casual level usually. But we also have some power users who are on in our apps buying songs and playing Magic Piano or singing Glee who are not musicians, but they’re spending a lot of time for the first time in their lives making music. And that is really quite cool. I don’t know, we do have few cases where someone has said, you know, ‘Magic Fiddle convinced my daughter that she wanted to take violin lessons.’ You know, it’s rare, but. So it is possible. So some kids may go to the conservatory some day who wouldn’t have gone had not been for the Ocarina or something like that. And so anything to get your foot in the door, in a way. And so I think this powerful notion of the social media in general. So Smule is doing in our way as much as we can and we have plans to do as much more as we can for music, for music making– what Facebook did for telling people what you had for lunch or posting pictures of your dog. And so to get people to think about music together. Make music maybe together. Share their music with each other. Inspire each other. Challenge each other. All that sort of stuff has been very cool. And so that’s certainly, I think, what’s next. There’s going to be more or that. I think we’re going to see more collaboration. Where people are, you know, working together. Never-met-people are working together, have-met who are doing this. So some of these network concert ideas that we’ve seen, Roger’s [Dannenberg] piece last night [‘Federation of Laptop Ensembles’). The [European] Bridges Ensemble tonight. Kind of sort of a hint at what people could maybe be doing with their phones, with their iPads or whatever. And I think that’s fairly powerful. I think that’s a future thing. We’re seeing the laptop orchestra idea kind of percolate down into high schools and elementary schools and something, you know, to give the kids something to do. And that’s very cool because if you look at these laptop orchestra ensembles they’re really academically based. Almost all of them are this-university; as a matter of fact they’re named after that. You’re named after a state, but that’s good too.”
Hwang: “Yeah, we’ve claimed the whole state.” [Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana]
Cook: “That’s right, so Tulane, there will be no ‘TOrk’ because you’re right. But so at some point you see it go beyond that where it is not just this university, The Ohio State University Laptop Orchestra but it’s really kids doing this and allowing and enabling and encouraging.
I think one of the cool things for me is to see how a laptop orchestra is educationally a really powerful thing. How you can get a really, really fuzzy arts majors to understand some engineering principles that they never would have tolerated a human being in the same room with, in the context of an orchestra or music making with your friends or for music credit. And to get some pretty hard, nerdy engineers introduced to some concepts like listening– critical listening, in real time.
And, frankly, the socialization that happens with a well comported ensemble who have posture on stage and enter the stage in an orderly way where all wear the same black and stand at their computers and open and close them in a nice, formal way. That’s something that the engineers who are good musicians know, because a lot of the engineers end up being fiddle players or something like that. But the engineers who don’t or the science or the math majors or even the literature majors who’ve never been in an ensemble don’t know how to act on stage. It’s a really interesting thing. It’s always funny to me I have to be reminded every time I work with one of these new ensembles that half of those people maybe never have been to a concert like that, let alone have been on the stage. And they don’t know that it is not okay that the instant you quit making sound you can start looking around and waving at your girlfriend. They don’t know that that’s not– you know you’re really an actor playing a role in addition to that. And so in a way I think we’re, even as nerdy as the word ‘laptop orchestra’ sounds, we’re doing a lot to socialize a lot of students into what it means to be theatrical, into what it means to be in a performance, in an ensemble, in a group like that. So, I think that’s a pretty cool contribution, so I sort of see that as a good contribution of ours. I don’t know if it’s for the future or not.
I really enjoy that Stephen [Beck] named this the ‘Symposium on Laptop Orchestras and Ensembles’. So it’s not now just orchestras, whatever that means, it’s ensembles so for me that means choirs. And that’s just augmenting the voice and doing cool things with the voice that really separate it from that orchestral tradition and put it in the singing space which has a whole different set of behaviors and common practices and things like that.
And I think also that this stuff, again, from Smule starting with Sonic Vox, which was our first little app that processed your voice. Which is basically the effects built into ChucK that we wrote in ChucK, put on your phone. But the real success of T-Pain. If can let everybody who has never been to an orchestra concert, but they know what Auto Tuning is even if they don’t know the name of it they’ve heard it, and they know what it is. You allow everybody to do that, you suddenly have people singing into their phones who would never sing in public, unless they were really drunk. And karaoke used to be the breaker of those mores and people would go out, get drunk, or whatever and they do karaoke together. But T-Pain and Glee, our other app, allows you to do that in privacy and if you like share it with your friends. It’s a small subset of people who actually post, who say ‘I’m going to now share this on Facebook’ because they think it’s awesome. But it’s a bigger subset who email to their girlfriend or, you know, so it’s a private, very controlled share. So we’re getting more people to sing than would have sang. And I view all of this sort of as an outgrowth of the laptop orchestra idea because some of those original instruments of Smule came from notions we had worked out with the laptop orchestra. So that’s the future will be, I hope, more music making on devices that you’ve got anyway.
If, and I realize they’re different businesses and different things, but if Kindle Fires had decent audio we could do something with that and it would be interesting. If Android phones were more consistent in their audio we could reach even more people. So in a way I hope that our successes inform the designs and the future, and Steve Jobs has always known this. Steve Jobs since NEXT knew that music and audio were important to support in that computer. Nothing else than for him to give the big demo when they announce it, but also to enable developers to have a good consistent platform that they can engineer it and we can engineer to it and write code for it and do things with it. And it just makes everything better. And so, for me, I hope: one of the side effects eventually of this is everything we pick up has decent audio in it. And that’s, I know that’s a dream, but they have, listen I mean, they put a mic on the iPods. It used to be the original iPods for many generations you had to buy a headset mic and plug it in, so they’re smart in knowing that video conferencing and music apps are sort of an important aspect of why people show their friends their cool device they just got. And so I like that, I think the future is maybe at least consistent audio which then would let us make cool stuff. What else?”
Hwang: “So every person I ask, they’re like ‘this is for ElectroTap’, and most of the time I only stick in this stuff, but I feel like I kind of have to ask, What is your involvement with maybe ElectroTap or ElectroTap companies or things that relate to those types of … What’s your involvement in those?”
Cook: “Well our first PLOrk stations were a Hemi speaker which Stephan Moore made for us for each person, fifteen of these. We had made generations of speakers before by ourselves and then with a different company and then with Stephen. And so each kit had a Hemi with a rack with an Edirol MIDI-interface, I’m sorry, Edirol multi-channel audio interface with MIDI, and a Teabox. So every rack had a Teabox on it. And that was our first laptop orchestra was the way we got sensors in. Except for the native laptop sensors, was the Tea box. Then we ended up when we got our MacArthur Grant by that time we had decided sort of that we didn’t need a sensor box because Rebecca [Fiebrink] got and Spencer [Salazar] and some of the others had figured out every sensor in the laptop, gave us a pretty rich space. And we’re using Wii’s and we have a couple of different Wii pieces and we were trying to get it down to where there was no rack. So the whole idea was that. So by the time we did that we sold off those racks to Boulder and Kalamazoo I think. And so those are still out there. Those are the original, Generation One, laptop orchestra stations. So that was basically our ElectroTap involvement. And then we were really deliriously happy when Stephan [Moore] (Isobel Audio) started making the speakers in the first place, and we were really even more deliriously happy when you guys started selling them. A real company we can point people to, and say you can build your own from Ikea salad bowls and car parts from Best Buy. Or you can buy used ones from the orchestras that are scaling up. Or you can go to these guys and buy them; here’s the website.”
Hwang: “How did Stephan get the idea for the Hemi? Was it separate or was he.. What did you..?”
Cook: “Alright here’s the story.”
Hwang: “Alright good, I’m glad I asked that.”
Cook: “Here’s the legacy, so [Scott] Smallwood and Stephan are old friends from a long time ago. And Smallwood when we started PLOrk, Dan [Trueman] and I were the faculty members and our first two TAs were Ge [Wang] from computer science and Smallwood from music. So they were the first on the ground, in the trenches, TAs who put the racks, screwed the racks together when we built the first stations. And so Smallwood and Stephan are really good friends. Meanwhile, Smallwood and Stephan had worked at RPI for Curtis Bahn who had gotten the bug to put sensors on
his base and on his wife and everything in sight, and built speakers of all sizes. So Curtis is like one of these extreme people, who, if you do something he needs it bigger, so he built a speaker that was too big to pick up, ‘bubba’. And then he built one smaller, so he has a little ball with sensors and speakers all over it that’s called the ‘bubba ball’ (I think). So he started building these speakers, and then Dan and I found this weird company that made kind of space-age, bachelor pad, spherical speakers. The speakers were spheres with one driver in them, fiber glass. And there are things there’s no diffraction stuff, and they look awesome.
Chicks dig those spherical speakers, and we contacted them and said ‘will you build us a sphere with 12 holes in it?’ And the guy said ‘Oh yeah, we’ve always wanted to do that, sure.’ And so we ordered a whole bunch of empty spheres and hemispheres of different sizes from them and built these speakers. Smallwood was in on that, Van [Stiefel] built some, Steve Mackey built some, Dan and I we got together in Steve Mackey’s basement and put all these things together and so Steve used them for his guitar concerto. And a lot of people were using these and then right about that time Curtis got some money, Stephan’s uncle is a cabinet-maker who has this cool computer controlled saw that will cut things in a really cool way. Truman had made the critter– the BoSSA, had made the BoSSA, which his dad, Dan’s dad, has this cool computer controlled saw that will cut things and you just put them together and they all fit just right. So I think Dan’s dad may have given the plans for the speakers that he built to Stephan through Scott, who went to Stephan’s uncle and they built the first round of those speakers at RPI. And Curtis fronted the money and they built 40 of them or something like that, there’s a whole room full of them. And they painted them in an auto body painting shop down the street. They painted some of them kind of cool, there was like a candy-apple red with flames and stuff. So that’s how the speakers found their way into Stephan’s hands. And that’s what I know, and I don’t know how hooked up with you guys.”
Allison: “Stephan and Tim Place spent one year in Baltimore.”
Cook “Oh, in Peabody?”
Allison: “Yeah, Peabody, and that’s where they met. Although I think they actually met once before at RPI– some connection there from or through performance or something. And they went separate ways but they were working on some networking stuff and then that’s how I met him so … So that’s how it happened.”
Cook: “I already did my UMKC stories so.”
Allison: “Yes. Kangaroos, man. It’s the best kind of state school. There’s no football team so there’s no marching band. So none of music is covered by this aspect of.”
Cook: “Is that an aspect of it? If you’re going to be conservatory you have to have no marching band?”
Allison: “Yea no marching band, it could be.”
Cook: “Anything else?”
Hwang: “I’ve got some good stuff, but I was going to ask you a question outside of that just for advice. I want to ask him about moving on with our laptop orchestra, because I want to hear some. You talked about engaging art students and engineering students, and I know that for our group we’re going to be expanding it too and encouraging undergrads to join now. And I was going to ask you for some advice on how to engage these, the inexperienced ones, especially the ones that are non-music. So maybe their background is minimal in term of maybe in performing or reading music and stuff like that.”
Cook: “Yea. I mean, our first PLOrk, we were told that we could get the most money out of the university if we offered it first as a freshman seminar. So which was just a really, really scary idea because we had no idea what we were going to get and we knew that it would be, you know, who knows? So at the minimal level you could teach them pieces. You could have cool things for them to play, and some of the canon, like CLIX is just fun. And you could teach them networking only to the degree that you say, ‘here’s an IP address’ and when you connect to the university’s wireless you can teach them a lot if you want to. If you want to convince the engineering school or the steam initiative people that you are really teaching concepts tell them how the university’s firewall doesn’t allow you to actually do the kind of stuff that you need to do CLIX, and that’s why you need to have to have your own router, which is insecure at many levels, but it allows you to do more stuff and you can tell them why it’s a whole ‘computing in your life’ sort of story.
Send them out to collect sounds. So give them each, or if they’ve each got a laptop tell them to take that out and record an animal. And do a piece based on their animal sounds, and make them edit those sounds. And so you’re teaching them a little bit of, a lot of stuff actually, and discussions can be had about field recording and noise and audio formats and why mp3s are good or bad. Or why you can’t use them for the laptop orchestra or whatever. And so you can have that whole kind of big discussion about that. And as I said, I had told him that I think one of the great contributions about our laptop orchestras are you’re socializing a lot of people who have never been to an orchestra concert– they’ve never been to a proper theatrical event possibly, some of them. And they don’t know that it’s not okay to wave at your mom and pick your nose on stage just because you’re not making sound at that instant. And to do that whole idea that you guys dress properly, and you have, you know it’s right. And you close the laptop at a particular time, and that must mean something.
And so you’re giving the engineering students that, in a way. The ones who don’t already play in the orchestra, and we teach them ChucK. We teach them, I mean they know how to write functions. They know how to do looping. We have them write a drum machine on the fly in ChucK while we show them what to do and some of them are off and running! They’re like man, I can totally get into this. So they learn what looping is, they learn an array. I have them do a little beat pattern in an array. And then the minute they have to copy some code to make it do something again you can teach them a function, and you can call that function, and they’re pretty much at that instant know Turing completeness. They know how to loop, they know how to do if and then. That’s sort of it. So that kind of stuff, if you give them code, you show them code. You have them code while you’re coding, and then the code that actually works right is on the wiki page. And you say, ‘if you can’t get it to work go get this and start with this’. And the assignment may be ‘modify that to do something cool’. And the students who don’t know anything will change, you know, 60 to 62 and realize that middle C…”
Allison: “I was going to say, what about the students who don’t understand what ‘cool’ is?”
Cook: “ ‘What cool is’, that’s true. Cool is what cool is… You’ll find out! You’ll find out what cool means. But the field recorded thing, that was actually for our advanced class. We actually had our PLOrk 2 class our second year and we made them do a sound font set. From scratch. From field recordings for the orchestra. Each of them. So we ended up with a sound font set of industrial factory noises from Trenton, and sound font set of something. And so that accomplished Dan’s goal of trying to get the studio class to cover the stuff you do there but use it for the orchestra and put it in the context of that. So yea we’re still looking at this curriculum. Ajay [Kapur] and I are designing a year-long curriculum for art majors, digital art majors at CalArts and we’re supposed to teach them ChucK and Processing. Not just in the service of ‘use these things that we put on the web page and stick them together and make a cool something’, but actually teaching them programming. And so that’s been going on anyway, but now we can sort of formalize it a little bit more. So there’s a lot that can be done, and no matter what as with any class there will be a couple people who just aren’t getting it because it’s not where their head is, and it also helps if it’s a credit course. If it’s an ensemble that they get to show up for a participate in, but you have no hammer to hit them with, then it’s a whole different game than if you can do assignments and say you owe me this assignment before midterm, or I will report you to your dean. Or whatever happens here. So that’s helpful. Having the orchestra be a class that counts for something. Then you can teach them something because then you can make them do stuff and then that’s what it’s about, is power….”