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Profile - Domenico Vicinanza, master of fusion

Profile - Domenico Vicinanza, master of fusion

Musicians play ancient instruments live in Stockholm while dancers in Kuala Lumpur about 10,000 kilometers away simultaneously perform on the display above the stage. (Click on image above to see video of entire performance.) All images courtesy Domenico Vicinanza

Domenico Vicinanza combines the worlds of science and music by using his talents as an engineer and a musician to bring ancient musical instruments back to life. In December 2009 Vicinanza and the 'Lost Sounds Orchestra' gave a unique performance.

While playing ancient Greek music live in Stockholm on a virtual instrument, an ultra-fast, high-quality video-feed of dancers from Kuala Lumpur was displayed - simultaneously bringing two distant cultures and locations into one place. iSGTW caught up with Vicinanza for an interview.

iSGTW: What's your job?

Vicinanza: At DANTE I support international projects that use the GÉANT network, the pan-European network backbone for research and education. I'm also the technical coordinator of ASTRA and the Lost Sounds Orchestra. ASTRA reconstructs ancient instruments using computer models and advanced networks like GÉANT; The Lost Sounds Orchestra uses these sounds, along with practicing musicians.

My role is interfaced between various worlds: I'm a musician, a network engineer and I can program.

iSGTW: What instrument do you play?

Vicinanza: I studied piano and percussion but my education is in composition. I wrote the music for the Lost Sounds Orchestra event, where the barbiton (a stringed instrument similar to a lute) was played for the first time. I was the middle guy playing percussion.

iSGTW: What made you choose ancient Greek instruments?

Vicinanza: We have a lot of archaeological information about them. All Western music comes from the Greek musical scale and organization of sounds. There's quite a lot of references to Greek instruments on clay vases, pottery and in literature. Ancient Greek music is the 'grandfather' of modern Western music.

iSGTW: How long has this project been running?

Vicinanza: We started in 2006 and used a computer modelling technique to recreate a simple instrument with just one string. As we improved our computing power and model, we had archaeologists, historians and musicians help us reproduce realistic sounds of ancient instruments. Then we started building the first instrument, the harp-like epigonion.

Barbiton in plexiglas, illuminated with lasers.

iSGTW: You started building instruments in the computer as a virtual model?

Vicinanza: The only instrument that we made in real life was called the 'monochord' (one string). We used it to validate our modelling technique. We built the one-string instrument, then recorded and studied its sound to verify that our computer model reproduced the sound realistically.

iSGTW: Then you could scale-up by adding more strings and complexity within the computer model?

Vicinanza: Precisely - it took nine months to recreate the sounds of the monochord accurately. We struck or plucked it with a precise level of energy or sound. For the same string we built a library of 127 different sounds from soft plucks to strong plucks: basically different ways of playing. We had 127 sounds and 12 strings, which meant a total of 1,524 simulations. With a single computer you have to run these sequentially; but with grid computing you can run them simultaneously. After half an hour, the time needed for just one reconstruction on a single computer, we had all the sounds.

Listen to a sample music clip of a performance featuring the harp-like epigonion and the lute-like barbiton. The higher notes are from the epigonion; the lower notes (accompaniment) are played by the barbiton.

iSGTW: How long would it take to process the sounds on a single computer?

Vicinanza: It would take 762 hours (just over a month, if it were running 24 hours a day for 7 days per week). With the grid we ran the processing in parallel, then collected the library of sounds and plugged them into a keyboard. When you pressed a key corresponding to a note, the right sample was loaded and played in real time.

iSGTW: What was unique about the Lost Sounds Orchestra performance in Stockholm?

Vicinanza: What made a difference was that we weren't using standard internet, but a series of research and education connections. The longest was the TEIN3 from Europe to Singapore. It's 2.5 Gb (Gigabit) or the equivalent of a 313 MB link, isolated from the standard internet. TEIN3 is a low noise network because we're not competing with other ISP traffic; it has a fiber optic connection spanning roughly 10,000 kilometers.

Because of networks like TEIN3, our musical performance had a delay of only 0.5 seconds between Stockholm and Kuala Lumpur. People in Kuala Lumpur were listening and watching us playing at the same time that we were watching them dancing. The video images were smooth, stable and we didn't have any pixelization. It was the first time that this network technology was used for an artistic performance spanning such vast distances.

iSGTW: Has anyone criticized your work?

Vicinanza: Some said these sounds could have come from a laptop and a plastic keyboard costing 100 euros (less than $140), so why use grid technology? If you're reconstructing one single sound, then a laptop is enough. But performing on a 'real' stage requires a lot of samples and your instruments need to be responsive to various ways you can play them, requiring a big sound library. On a standard computer this would take months to develop.

This work demonstrates the power of research networking to facilitate collaboration, but is equally applicable to medicine, astronomy and climate change. We hope other people continue our work.

-Adrian Giordani, iSGTW. The ASTRA project will perform at Supercomputing 2010 in New Orleans. An epigonion exhibition will be in Italy from 27 May to 30 December, with a physical reconstruction of the epigonion available to the public.

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