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Making Music Together While Apart

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A performing arts professor at Virginia Tech has created a free, open- sourced music making program designed for these times. It brings physically distant musicians together to jam like there’s no pandemic.

The remote music composing program is still in its infancy. Its creator is Ico Bukvic, inventor of the “Laptop Orchestra” and director of the Creativity+Innovation Transdisciplinary Community at Virginia Tech. 

The music you’re hearing is an experimental excerpt playing on a new platform called the L2Ork Tweeter, a play on Twitter, for those snippets of information that bounce off each other in the twitter -sphere. The L2Ork Tweeter lets users do much the same thing, only with music they compose and send, using a computer keyboard that functions like a kind of piano for playing all kinds of sounds

 “And so, once any key" says Bukvic, “it produces sound based on the chromatic scale that it has been assigned in the software. And where things get interesting is, that sound that's being produced both locally and remotely on other users’ computers, is actually something that each user can fashion themselves.”

 The idea is to create new and interesting music through collaboration, pandemic or not.

 “So, I mean, obviously pandemic has changed everything, everything that we know and don't yet know.”  He found himself wanting “that social connection, something that we took for granted prior to that.” 

 So, back in March when everything started imploding, music performances were being canceled, and there just wasn’t any kind of existing infrastructure to play together over a distance in quite this way.

 “It was a kind of a surprise for me because I kind of felt, well, I have a 'Laptop Orchestra,' it is all about technology, so if anybody could figure this out, I should be able to do that. And I kind of set myself up for a kind of a challenge.”

As he got working on it, he realized how much of any music making process basically revolves around social connections, collaboration and teamwork, not to mention proximity. And if the pandemic is doing anything, it’s changing that last one.


“So, I really wanted to see how we can connect people. I'm obviously a big technology enthusiast and I enjoy working with technology, but at the end of the day, everything I do boils down to connecting people.”

 So, the big question is how exactly do people playing music remotely keep from stepping all over each other’s’ riffs?  Well, the L2Ork Tweeter was designed just for it.

 Bukvic says, this is where the “loop centric” program comes into play. It’s all about sound loops that be made, played, and replayed exactly when and where you want them.

 “So when one instantiates a note inside of this loop, it is positioned very accurately based on the information that has been broadcast over the network. So, the next time the local users’ software runs over that loop, it will know exactly where to play that. And it will be perfectly time as a result of it.”

  “And that’s the way you might build a musical piece in a pandemic.  

 “And the other thing that came out of it was the, the richness, the, the tangible richness of sounds that I was able to put together relatively quickly and realizing just how much more there is to explore.”

Bukvic posted one his early demos on line a few months ago, “And I remember when I posted it, there was a lot of  interest in it and a lot of surprise, but I also realized that it wasn't necessarily the most mainstream, or the most inviting for people outside of this experimental community.”

Now that the program is up and running, he and his team are working to create a less electronic sound, “that mimics the already existing, natural sound that we're used to.” 

Bukvic says this kind of music program could be of use to musicians, who used to make their livings from live gigs, back in pre-pandemic days.

“We want to look for ways that we can support artists, because obviously they've been, quite effected by the COVID-19 pandemic, given that a lot of them have their livelihoods in live gigs and now that not being possible, they they're experiencing hardships. One thing the team is thinking of doing is “simply encouraging artists to create new music in this (time), and then run some form of competitions, where we can give awards and incentives to help him in, in kind of brave new world of this COVID-19 crisis.” 

 Bukvic hopes the L2Ork Tweeter might also have a role to play in distance learning, supporting collaboration and creativity from afar.


 ***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.