Live coding has appeared in all its mystery and wonder at a number of my electronic music open mics. With particularly memorable performances from Ash Sagar in Leeds and Alo Allik in London. As this is an area of creative activity that I know very little about, I thought I’d catch up with Ash and Alo to find out more.
This is the first of two articles focussing on artists who are involved in live coding.
Warning! This article contains footnotes.
So I saw you both independently doing some live coding at my nights. Tell me, when did you start live coding and why?
Ash: I started live coding in around 2009. It was more a way to explore SuperCollider (1) in a more musical way as at the time I was just running examples and stopping them. When I worked out proxyspace (2) it made more sense to me. I was also tired of having loads of gear to carry around and connect to make them speak to each other. I just wanted to take a laptop out and make music without having tons of technology with me. Later I got hooked on Ixi Lang (3) as you could make music more quickly than in SuperCollider.
Alo: I started accidentally! I was put on the bill for a live coding night with my friend Yota even though we did not intend to live code. We felt a bit pressured when we found out we’d be the only lame ones not doing it. So we did. That was in London 5 or 6 years ago. But I’ve also been using SuperCollider since 1999, the heady days of Mac OS 9 so you could say I have been live coding since then, whatever that means .. even though live coding didn’t ‘officially’ exist at that time.
Q2. Did it all begin with SuperCollider?
Alo: As far as I know, it was a group of SuperCollider nerds, like Nick Collins, Alberto De Campo, Julian Rohrhuber, but also Alex McLean, who I think was using something else.
Ash: Perl (4) maybe. I remember reading a lot of the articles on the TOPLAP web site (https://toplap.org) and I think Alex McLean was using that.
Alo: That’s it. There was also a manifesto which I found thoroughly hilarious.
Excerpt from TOPLAP Manifesto
We acknowledge that:
- ·It is not necessary for a lay audience to understand the code to appreciate it, much as it is not necessary to know how to play guitar in order to appreciate watching a guitar performance.
- · Live coding may be accompanied by an impressive display of manual dexterity and the glorification of the typing interface.
- ·Performance involves continuums of interaction, covering perhaps the scope of controls with respect to the parameter space of the artwork, or gestural content, particularly directness of expressive detail. Whilst the traditional haptic rate timing deviations of expressivity in instrumental music are not approximated in code, why repeat the past? No doubt the writing of code and expression of thought will develop its own nuances and customs.
For full manifesto visit: https://toplap.org/wiki/ManifestoDraft
Q3. So it seems live coding has been around for a long time, how has it developed and what are the current exciting things that are happening in the field?
Alo: There are still a lot of interesting things happening, for example Mico Rex, an experimental electro-pop duo from Mexico City or Benoît and the Mandelbrots from Germany simultaneously networking between four coders. Last year I played in Newcastle at an Algorave (5) where everyone had to use protein synthesis data from a biology lab as part of their set. Ha, mine didn’t work so well and kept crashing which was stressful but fun.
Ash: The first time I saw Mico Rex at the Stubnitz Algorave was pretty amazing too. As was Nick (Sick Lincoln). He was doing all sorts of insane stuff.
Alo: I think the most interesting sets are usually collaborations between musicians and artists who do not live code. I had a collaboration with Shelly Knotts and writer Tom McCarthy about a year or so ago where me and Shelly live coded a sonic accompaniment to Tom reading excerpts from his novels. There are so many interesting approaches I have seen over the years.
Ash: I’ve not been massively involved for a while but it’s good to see that a lot of countries are putting on Algoraves so there must be a pretty decent take up of people live coding.
So if someone wanted to have a go at coding as a beginner how should they get started?
Ash: I thought Ixi Lang was a great introduction as it was easy to install and use. You hit some of its boundaries pretty fast but if you’re a curious user then those boundaries soon turn into creative tools (for me at least). Also it’s built on top of SuperCollider so you can start to dip into that when you get a bit braver. There’s plenty of choice. You just have to make it work for you and be willing to think of a piece of software as your instrument.
Alo: That’s right. I think the bottom line is to make the computer as malleable and accessible to use for improvisation like a traditional acoustic instrument. Go to workshops and besides SuperCollider, you could use Tidal Cycles, Sonic Pi, Max, Pure Data, for example.
Thanks for those suggestions. Finally, can you tell me a little about your current musical projects?
Alo: I have ongoing collaborations with some wonderful people, like Sharon Gal, who is the most badass free improvised singer and performer. Every now and then I do a gig with Shelly Knotts, a collaboration that has been going on since the 2013. Check out the gig at Mile End Gallery:
I played with 3 singers Andrea Young, Sharon Chohi Kim and Sara Sinclair Gomez. I love working with other artists and it really doesn’t matter to me that I am live coding in the process, all that matters is what comes out of the speakers.
Ash: I mainly play bass guitar now so I’m pretty busy with my two main bands, Neuschlaufen (last touted as an avant-jazz-kraut improv trio) and The Wharf Street Galaxy Band (post punk, disko, funk type thing). I’m also playing in a post goth band called Void Ship Captains. Another project is an improvised duo called Orlando Ferguson.
Thank you Ash and Alo for taking the time to talk to Electronic North about live coding. I recommend having a go if you haven’t already done so, it’s fun and all you need is a lap top. TOPLAP website is a great place to start. In Part 2 of this piece I’ll be talking to Lucy Cheesman of Heavy Lifting (Sheffield).
(1) SuperCollider is a free platform for audio synthesis and algorithmic composition, used by musicians, artists and researchers working with sound.
(2) ProxySpace allows individual functions / patterns / etc in SuperCollider to become flexible and modifiable, as well as to make them patterns interact
(3) Ixi lang is also a programming language for live coding. It is a domain-specific language that embraces simplicity and constraints in design.
(4) Perl code can also be used to generate music. The process involves writing a Perl script that algorithmically generates a melody.
(5) An event where music is generated from algorithms using live coding techniques.