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Feature - The Lost Sounds Orchestra

Feature - The Lost Sounds Orchestra


An audience experiences “the sonic scenario of the past.” Image courtesy Luca Petrella

Last September, iSGTW reported upon the return of the epigonion, an ancient Greek wooden stringed instrument resembling a harp. Ancient instruments can be lost because they are too difficult to build, or too difficult to play, but the epigonion was heard again after ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) recreated its sound using grid-enabled computer modeling.

More ancient instruments are to be heard soon, after the organization's official Lost Sounds Orchestra finishes its preparations for a unique performance towards the end of summer.

Having successfully reconstructed the sound of the epigonion, ASTRA is working on a whole host of other lost instruments including the barbiton (an ancient base guitar), the syrinx (a pan flute), an ancient lower Mediterranean frame drum, the salpinx (a kind of ancient trumpet) and the aulos (an ancient oboe).

In many respects, ASTRA's Lost Sounds Orchestra is like any other orchestra — with real musicians, rehearsals and performances — except its goal is to offer its audience a completely new world of music. The sounds of the barbiton and the frame drum are currently being finalized, while a guitar player is familiarizing himself with both the epigonion and the barbiton using his specially adapted electric MIDI guitar, which has been programmed with the lost sounds. (MIDI, or 'Musical Instrument Digital Interface,' is a industry-standard protocol that allows electronic musical instruments, keyboards, computers, and other electronic equipment to communicate, control, and synchronize with each other.) The sounds of the salpinx should also be completed by the end of summer.

“The preparation is going really well,” remarks Domenico Vicinanza, the technical coordinator of the project. “It is a long, strange and fascinating process. Together with the artistic coordinator, we are choosing the pieces and adapting the orchestration to the unique ensemble we have. Everybody is so excited!”

Reconstructing sounds

A technique called physical modeling synthesis is used to reconstruct the sounds of the lost instruments. Equations and algorithms describe the physical structure of the instrument, while sounds are generated by modeling it as a mechanical system with different configurations for each note.

In other words, each instrument is defined by a set of fixed constants (such as its dimensions and material properties), together with a set of time-dependant functions (how the musician interacts with it). For example, the frame drum is modeled by defining constants like the stiffness and mass density of its membrane, while a formula works out the energy injected into the system when it is struck with a particular force by the musician, producing a unique note.

In their efforts to recreate sounds of the past they aren't just stopping at instruments, as the project's artistic coordinator Francesco De Mattia explains: “We are working on modeling ancient environments — rooms, places, etcetera — where the music was played, trying to describe how the physical environment changed, modified the timbres and sounds, to have a better understanding of the whole musical world, a complete picture of the sonic scenario of the past.”

Francesco De Mattia plays the epigonion through a keyboard, accompanied by the baroque cello and percussion. Image courtesy Luca Petrella

The ambitious project is very much a multi-disciplinary effort, involving not just computer scientists and musicians, but also historians, physicists, archeologists and engineers. To reconstruct the instruments, a wide range of archeological data is taken into account, from written descriptions to excavated fragments and pictures on ancient urns. The ASTRA team is in contact with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where a beautifully preserved salpinx resides, to collect additional data from high resolution pictures to input into their model.

Due to the complexity of the physical modeling process, it would take a powerful desktop computer four hours to produce just one sound lasting 30 seconds. To speed the procedure up and achieve the necessary processing power, ASTRA models are run simultaneously on hundreds of computers throughout Europe and the lower Mediterranean area using the GILDA and EUMEDGRID infrastructures, which link computing resources through the GÉANT2 and EUMEDCONNECT research networks at up to 2.5 Gbps, using EGEE middleware.

Play it again

The epigonion has already been heard live, alongside a string quartet at the Terena TNC'09 Gala Dinner concert, playing a wide variety of music ranging from baroque music to Frank Sinatra. Contemporary pianist Ramin Bahrami also played the epigonion in July this year at his Bach Recital in Naples.

De Mattia is thrilled about the challenge of playing the epigonion for the Lost Sounds Orchestra. “Having instruments virtually without technical limits is a continuous, wonderful challenge as a musician and conductor. Deciding how to play them, how to interact, which interface to use, what controller, what sound to look for. Sincerely, the only real challenge I have to face is with myself.”

By generating lost sounds using computer models, rather than physically reconstructing the instruments, more people will ultimately be able to access and hear them through sound libraries. The Lost Sounds Orchestra is currently organizing a special project devoted to Domenico Scarlatti's music, establishing a network through which musicians from all over the world will soon be able to play the epigonion using a MIDI keyboard and record a sonata using their home computer.

“The final result will be something special,” enthuses Vicinanza. “The network will be the tool to bring together people with different experiences, different backgrounds but speaking music as a common language.”

Seth Bell, iSGTW

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