In this second article on live coding I talk to Lucy Cheesman of Heavy Lifting (Sheffield) about TidalCycles, women in electronic music and Lucy’s prolific music/sound output.
So before we get going with the interview, tell me a little about your background Lucy?
I grew up in Deptford in South East London, but I’ve lived in Sheffield since 2011. I played drums as a kid, which I learnt at a community after school club. I played in a few bands as a teenager, but didn’t really make much music at all until a few years ago.
What kind of music did you start making and what were your influences?
When I was younger I was in fairly typical teenage indie bands. When I ‘reactivated’ I wanted to make electronic music, mainly as my ambition as a drummer always way outstripped my physical ability! I think electronic music is a bit more democratic in that sense – although I’m not denying there is a lot of skill required!.
I have this way of thinking about inspiration that’s like all your life experiences go on to a big compost heap and create this fertile soil where you can’t really pick out what was what… stuff just grows out of it haha. So it’s hard for me to say musically what my influences are. But in terms of approach and practice and just generally wanting to make something I was really lucky to be around some amazing people who inspired and supported me. Meeting Joanne and Shelly Knotts and Alex McLean, watching them live and speaking to them about not just the music they make, but all the organising and activism they do was a really big deal to me.
I’m really interested to hear more about the organising and activism please.
Ok! So those guys all work really hard to activate new live coders, and they’ve all done heaps to get more women involved in the scene which is really important. They also tirelessly organise events and collaborations, all while working on their own musical practice and research. It made such a difference to me to encounter a scene that so emphatically welcomed and encouraged experimentation (both for beginners and more experienced folk) – that’s something I really care about and try to do myself.
Having said that, there is still work to be done on diversity within the scene, but I think we’re doing ok for a relatively new and small movement.
That brings us nicely to live coding part of this interview. Why (and how) did you start live coding?
I did try (and do still dabble) in other areas – I use Ableton and am currently experimenting with a homemade Arduino sequencer. Then I went to a SuperCollider workshop led by Joanne and Shelley and I loved the freedom of live coding, being able to create rhythms and textures that would be quantised out of existence in a traditional DAW. But as a beginner I found SuperCollider really challenging as there’s such a steep learning curve. A few months later I saw Alex demo TidalCycles and I was really into the immediacy of the language and how easy it is to write complex and unpredictable patterns.
I don’t know much about TidalCycles. Is it expensive and who makes it?
It’s a free and open source live coding platform, developed initially by Alex McLean (although now with lots of contributors). It can be a bit difficult to install for the uninitiated, but there’s a really active and helpful online community to support anyone who’s not familiar with programming or music making or both. There’s also monthly meetups in Sheffield, London, Aberdeen, Atlanta and maybe other places I don’t know about.
I’m a bit of a TidalCycles evangelist, it’s a really fun and immediate way to make music.
TidalCycles was also mentioned in the previous article on live coding, I’ll check it out. Can you tell me more about your current music projects and what plans you have?
I’ve got quite a bit going on actually! So as well as my solo stuff (releasing an album with a netlabel called pan y rosas in August), I also play in a live coding band called TYPE with Ryan Kirkbride and Laurie Johnson. We use two pieces of free and open source software that Ryan developed called FoxDot (another live coding platform) and Troop (which allows us to collaborate). I’ve also got an upcoming collaboration with Alex McLean which we’ll debut at a gig in Sheffield on 28th April. I’m working on a new band with Nick Potter (ex Blood Sport) and Adam Zejma from Tye Die Tapes. It’s tricky as we’re trying a weird combo of live coding, midi sync and live instruments. We’ve had some technical difficulties but we’re getting there! I set up a little record label called Pickled Discs at the end of last year (actually partly inspired by the electronic open mic you organised – there were so many amazing acts there!) and we’re working on our second release at the moment. I’m also part of a collective called SONA – we make sound art and also run events to support and promote women in sound and music technology – we’re affiliated with the Yorkshire sound women network and coordinate their activity in Sheffield.
It’s great that there is work going on to support and encourage women in electronic music making. Why do you think the scene tends to be so male dominated? And is there more that could be done to help women interested in electronic music making?
Well I can only really talk about my own experiences and what I’ve observed – for me there are two barriers. One is confidence (kind of related to this is tech snobbery too) and this sense that if you don’t know your way round Ableton, or if you don’t have a modular synth, or an expensive laptop etc that you have no right to be there. But everyone has to begin somewhere! Of course this affects men too but I think women suffer disproportionately here. The second thing is the classic ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ – actually there are loads of awesome women in electronic music and music tech, BUT we are still the minority and unfortunately the stereotypical image of a DJ or whatever is still male. The tides are changing a bit thanks to the amazing work of activists like Female Pressure, but representation, particularly in mainstream press, is so low. So for me some of the main things you can do are about lowering barriers to entry, creating safe spaces for women to learn and experiment, and having patience and encouragement for women, particularly those who are new to the scene, but also more experienced people. Call out aggression against women when you see it at shows too. And also just book women! Give us gigs! If you are booked on a lineup with no women ask the promoter why that is! It’s not rocket science really but it does require constant work and will for a long time.
Thank you so much for talking to Electronic North Lucy and we very much look forward to hearing more from your current projects.
To find out more on Lucy’s work go to the website heavy-lifting.github.io