Musical Distancing

A band born during quarantine leads a professor to explore different avenues of artistic collaboration online.

Carlos Guedes sets up alone in front of a tangle of cables that make up his analog synthesizer in his NYU Abu Dhabi studio. He lays down the opening beat for a performance with his six-member band that individually begin to chime in with melodies from Abu Dhabi New York and Dubai, –each performing live from their personal performance spaces for an audience tuning in from even more countries.

This is a concert during the times of social distancing. His band, Hindustabic Electronica, have never rehearsed in person. But their practice sessions, which began early during the social distancing measures, and their performances have been made possible through the music professor’s research.

The performance is an earnest artist expression for the band Guedes helped form during the COVID-19 lockdown, but it also serves as the first experiment for his research on creating an online platform for musical and artistic collaboration. With NYUAD entering another semester of remote instruction, Guedes wanted to create an online environment where these time-sensitive and latency-demanding collaborations could be conducted without disconnects, lags or other technical mishaps disrupting the performance. He’s named it the NYUAD Sandbox.

“Making music online is not easy due to the need for low-latency, stable and large-bandwidth connections. Having realized that the University did not have any of this in place, I started testing different software solutions for effectively making music online using peer-to-peer connections,” said the Portuguese associate professor of music.

He worked closely with NYUAD’s Information Technology team (including Danny Abbas, Mona Alhazek and Anwar Mohammed Ali) and software developers to enable that sort of collaboration, and the results have been fruitful. Besides the creation of a unique band that has performed live several times, the platform has served as a case-in-point for what could be done next semester as students return to class from a distance.

The popular conferencing app, Zoom, he realized, was not the correct medium for teaching music. Zoom, along with other video conferencing apps, are optimized for voice communication and often programmed to eliminate audio externalities known as value processing. For someone teaching a music class or any audio-based education, including a lecture, other solutions had to be found.

He began looking at other technologies. In the process of doing so, he befriended Dr Alexander Carot, who developed Soundjack, a free real-time communication system, and has helped in moving this system forward. Guedes is also in the process of suggesting a class on how to collaborate artistically from afar, as the flexibility an efficient model allows could prove to be useful even beyond social distancing measures.

“This will not only solve the problems for music lessons in the Fall shall we continue remotely, but it is intended to remain as a platform for artistic experimentation and collaboration with other artists worldwide, taking advantage of fast internet connections. This platform is the base for the "Socially Distant, Musically Intimate" performance series on the NYUAD Social Distancing Music Festival,” he said.

The NYUAD Social Distancing Music Festival, the online venue where the band held its debut performance, has proven a wild success with more than a thousand viewers tuning in. With members of the community and the wider general interest viewer tuning in to experience live performances at these low-latency levels, the festival is expected to grow as live performances remain on hold on campus.

The technology and the act of performing from a distance, Guedes said, took some adjustment. But the performances and ease of expression was made easier as the lag between performers became faster.

Moving forward the band will continue to perform together. They have already demonstrated the robustness and flexibility of the platform by incorporating more members from various places around the world participating in different capacities.

For example, they have involved the work of a dancer, Kiori Kawai, who was previously located in Abu Dhabi but has been in the US for a few months. The dancer is performing interpretively to the music. Their performances have gained recognition and the troupe was selected to perform the Network Music Festival 2020 taking place between July 15 and July 18.

The band is comprised of vocalists Nandini Roy Choudury and Kaustuv Ganguli; Jonathan Shannon playing the oud, rubab, cello and other instruments; percussionist Andy Eisenberg; pianist Christos Plachouras; wind controller, Leonid Kuzmenko and Tom Beyer on live electronics. 

In the future, the NYUAD Sandbox model could be used to teach classes in a more robust manner, to find new avenues of artistic expression, and could even be used to allow for a more direct transmission of lectures. With Guedes’ low latency model, lectures, even those without an artistic angle or need for low-latency collaboration, could be made more interactive and used to teach classes more effectively.