Music of the Keys; Sang Lee Types Music

Nov 9, 2018

These days, most everyone types on computer keyboards. It’s the way we work, play and communicate.  But they’re also becoming musical instruments. 

A computer scientist at Virginia Tech has come up with a new way to ‘play’ them, where the act of striking the keys becomes a new form of artistic expression.    

Credit freepic

Sang Won Lee is all about bridging the gap between computer science and art. His field is interactive systems and, for him, that means music made with computers

“It’s interesting that when people ask me, 'What kind of music is it that you play? I have to say, 'I play laptop.'”

Lee places a microphone next to his computer. “I use it to capture the sound of me, typing on the keyboard.”  

The mic is also capturing the motion, the music, if you will of live writing, typing in real time and it’s being transformed into sound by a program he created.

Lee says people do so much writing, “We write email, we write text messages text messages, we write every day. My idea is that, hey, writing is a real time activity.  It takes time, but we only get to see one snapshot of it, so the idea is, ‘Why don’t we unfold it, over time to reveal the whole writing activity to readers?”

Lee is sort of mining the act of typing on a keyboard for the creativity it contains, its rhythms, its emotion, the false starts and rewrites.

“Imagine that you’re writing a love letter for example, you can put a lot of emotion into the real time thing, like, say you started to write something, then you’re hesitant, there’s a pause, there’s contemplation, there’s a burst. You start to delete certain parts because you think it’s inappropriate. There’s a lot of expressivity that you can use as an artist, or as a writer. So, why do we ignore that? Why don’t we just capture all that and use it as a way to express ourselves?”

Lee points to people like John Cage and Steve Reich, musicians who explored different media and sounds.

“They were early, experimental musicians, who created new music with new media at that time.  They cut the tape and put it in a piece of paper and then they looped it, they created a turn table to scratch and make a new sound, so my question was, what if they were (still) alive and they saw today’s YouTube videos?  What would they do with it?  So, I came up with the piece called, “Live Coding You Tube.”

Lee came up with an application, “Where I can retrieve You Tube video in the way that I want, musically, so I organize the videos in musical ways so, it sounds like music and I perform with it.”

Reporter:  So, you’re sort of dj'ing.

“Yes, exactly,” says Lee.  “Dj'ing with You Tube videos. The opportunity there is, I have practically  an infinite number of You Tube video that I can play with. So, I could just take my lap top, and as long as I have Internet, I can dj.