SciTech

Virtual concert brings us all together

Professional drummer and percussionist Janelle Burdell plays the drums while  co-creator of the Global Network Orchestra Tom Neuendorffer monitors the audio from the 64 musicians. (credit: Brooke Kuei/SciTech Editor) Professional drummer and percussionist Janelle Burdell plays the drums while co-creator of the Global Network Orchestra Tom Neuendorffer monitors the audio from the 64 musicians. (credit: Brooke Kuei/SciTech Editor)

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” This Saturday, Mar. 1, 64 musicians from across the globe were united through a virtual concert that was broadcast in Rashid Auditorium in the Gates Center.

Roger Dannenberg, professor of computer science, art, and music at Carnegie Mellon, was the “semiconductor” of the group, which is called the Global Network Orchestra and featured musicians from North America and Europe, as well as from New Zealand, Malaysia, Iceland, India, Turkey, and Australia. The universal musicians used their laptops to simultaneously perform together while Dannenberg conducted the group virtually from the Ammerman Center at Connecticut College.

Dannenberg emphasized in his opening statement that the Global Network Orchestra embodies the idea that everyone around the world is connected: “It helps us realize we are all brothers and sisters, no matter how far away or seemingly different we might be.”

But how could 64 musicians from around the world be synced together, especially with the amount of precision needed to perform in a concert together?

“There are several things that all have to work: cross-platform software, simple user interfaces, and low-latency robust networking,” Dannenberg said in an email. Streaming would be far too inefficient, so Dannenberg and Tom Neuendorffer — co-creator of the project and a principal engineer at Carnegie Speech, a developer of software for assessing and teaching spoken language skills — created a system which allowed the musicians to transmit audio information in a way that uses much less bandwidth than streaming.

Dannenberg explained that instead of having each musician send and receive streams of audio, which would take an enormous amount of bandwidth, the audio generated by each musician is decomposed into a pitch and a loudness, which only takes a few bytes.

“Each player receives the pitch and loudness information from every other player and reconstructs the audio with a local synthesizer, saving the need to transmit or receive streams of audio,” Dannenberg said. “The synthesis is based on samples that are shared and downloaded by all the performers before the concert.”

“Another challenge, which is more musical than technical, is the speed of light. The delays impose some limits on how well you can synchronize, and therefore influence what kinds of music it makes sense to perform,” Dannenberg said.The pieces performed are as follows: “Prayer for Peace,” which was composed by Dannenberg himself; “Grant Us Peace,” a Bach chorale from BWV 42; “Riffs and Drums,” a conducted improvisation led by Dannenberg; and finally, “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Janelle Burdell, a professional drummer and percussionist, performed live in the Rashid Auditorium as the featured musician of “Riffs and Drums.” Two other renowned musicians who performed as part of the Global Network Orchestra include Pauline Oliveros, a well-known American composer, and Scot Gresham-Lancaster, a pioneer of networked and telematics music.

As with all performances, the Global Network Orchestra faced a few technical difficulties. For example, there were supposed to be 100 musicians total, but due to network connection issues, only 64 musicians participated. As Dannenberg joked at the end of the performance, though, “64 is 100 in base 8!”

While the idea of a virtual orchestra is still novel, the Global Network Orchestra’s performance confirms that it is not only entirely possible, but is a concept that may continue to grow in the future.