get_image.phpI’ve been reminiscing about the early days of live coding, living in London UK around the year 2000 and taking part in experimental electronic music events there. There is some kickback for the phrase “experimental music”, it doesn’t make sense as a genre label (once it’s a genre, is it still an experiment?) or an institutional alignment (could/should institutions experiment on culture?), but I think it makes sense to talk about experimental events where new ideas and software are tried out, which might result in failure.

One place was the Foundry, a pub on Old Street/Great Eastern Street where I spent a lot of time. You never knew what you were walking into, from full-on digital noise to (actually, more often than not), a lady reciting poetry about worms, uncontrolled explosions in the vaults.. If you wanted to do something yourself you just spoke to Gimpo and would get a date in the diary.

The pub was closely associated to the KLF, and a framed poster by Bill Drummond was on display titled “I COULD FUCKIN’ DO BETTER THAN THAT”. On reflection I think my life would have been very different if I hadn’t read it. We organised quite a few VXSLAB events here, even a generative art exhibition in the basement (old bank vaults). The ethos of doing stuff without looking for permission or funding, just doing it is something we took into many dorkbotlondon and other free events.. Making things happen felt easy.

Another place was Public Life, an underground toilet squatted by Siraj Izhar and turned into another amazing space for experimentation. It’s rules for operation were similar to the Foundry:

  1. not to solicit activity, all activity had to be self initiated, volunteered or uninvited
  2. not to say no to anything, reject anything but attempt accommodation in some way

Slub played here regularly, at events like the Sunday Deriver, and Plug and Play. The space had a projector (they were starting to become affordable), so we were able to start projecting our screens..

With venues like Fabric closing in London, lets not forget the other end of the spectrum – venues created for open experimentation, existing for art outside of funded institutions and commercial venues. They open up where artists can move in, before property developers push them out. Without these spaces, I wouldn’t be making music or events now. Do they still exist in London? Sheffield has Audacious, Access Space, DINA etc, long may they continue..

Computer Club in Igloo magazine

A reflective review of Peak Cut EP in Igloo magazine, part of a feature on Computer Club:

Yaxu, Alex McLean, doesn’t just use programs to make his sound, he writes his own programs. The first result, Peak Cut, has been set to memory stick. The style, dubbed algorave, is a mix between breakbeat IDM and playful plink. The entirety was constructed using McLean’s Tidal software. McLean sounds like a bit of a programming fiend. During live shows the raw code he knocks out is displayed to give visual insight into what is happening behind the laptop lid. Now I’d be the first to raise a cynical eyebrow if this idea didn’t work, if this were little more than a gimmick. But, the music speaks for itself. I can feel the other eyebrow twitch. USB Stick?! But in the spirit that this LP has it is arguably the most universal physical format today. Charming sounds, sometimes chaotic, pour forth. Absorbing and complex this is a style that involves the listener in more ways than one. The release offers you the chance to try your hand at sonic sculpting with Tidal, the software being part of the release. As the price of vintage equipment soars over on eBay this is the other side of the synthesizer. Open source and available, an emancipation of electronic experimentation. Before my rhetoric gets a little too early 20th century I better get back to the album. Percussion rains down, clambering atop one another as keys stagger through a sonic storm in tracks like “Animals.” At points the fuzz, fizz and flicking can become frustrating, but that soon passes. Peak Cut needs a number of listens and is at times, well, puzzling. But pretension is not part of the formula, instead this is picking up where a certain past left off.

I’m not really a computer nut. Yeah, I know we all use em all the time but I’ve never really been into coding and stuff. I never really got past BASIC, or past the first few hours with it. Yet, I must admit, I always liked the egalitarian nature that a lot of coding has. The sharing of ideas and software. The freedom to build and construct in a new language, one that would communicate something new. Computer Club have captured some of that vibrancy, some of that desire to distribute and that keenness to create. Who says you need to buy vintage analog equipment for exorbitant prices? Some labels of Sheffield say otherwise, and the results are plain to enjoy.

full article

Canute in the EulerRoom

Had a great time playing with Yee-King as Canute in EulerRoom at ODIHQ (during the Thinking Out Loud launch). Here’s the recording:

Thinking Out Loud exhibition

Cm26290WYAAlLkfThe Thinking Out Loud exhibition is up! I’ve been working on this with curator Hannah Redler, during my ongoing sound-artist-in-residence at the Open Data Institute in London (supported by SaM). We’ve brought together a great group show consisting of work from some of my friends, collaborators and inspirations, in particular Felicity Ford, David Griffiths and Julian Rohrhuber, Ellen Harlizius-Klück, Dan Hett, David Littler, Antonio Roberts, Sam Meech and Amy Twigger-Holroyd.

There were many other artists we wanted to invite and include, but these pieces sit very well together to create an alternative view on digital art and open data, for example presenting weaving and knitting as digital art forms, and Precolumbian Quipu as unfathomable data.

The exhibition is free to visit by appointment, full info here.

Here’s some photos gleaned from twitter (will improve on these next time I’m down!).

Making Spicule

Algorithmic approaches to music involve working with music as language, and vice-versa, in fact music and language become inseparable. This allows a musician to describe many layers of patterns as text, in an explicit way that is not possible by other means. By this I mean that musical behaviours are given names, allowing them to then be combined with other musical behaviours to create new behaviours. This process of making language for music is not one of cold specification, but of creative exploration. People make new language to describe things all the time, but there’s something astonishing about making languages for computers to make music, and it’s something I want to share.

Here’s a recording of one of the live streams I’ve been doing while working on my solo album Spicule from my home studio:

I start with nothing, but in the last few minutes everything comes together and I have a couple of different parts that start feeling like a whole track. There isn’t really a musical structure to the session apart from the slow building of parts, and a sudden cut when everything comes together. The macro structure of the track will come later, but by a process of trying rough ideas, and listening to see where they go, the music emerges from the words.

I generally go through much the same process when I’m doing improvised performances, making music from nothing, but this feels very different.. Instead of being tied to the structure of a performance, making continual changes to work with the audience’s expectations, I’m dealing with repetitions even more than usual. I’ve started experimenting with lights, at first to try accentuating the sound but I think now more to help focus, to get inside the repetition and maintain flow. Unfortunately doesn’t quite work in the video because the sound and video are slightly out of sync.. But the left/right light channels map to the left/right speakers, and each sound has a different colour.

As live coding develops, I still really enjoy improvisation, but am finding myself doing polished performances more often, involving prepared tracks, with risk low, and the original making processes behind them hidden. This is probably for the best, but then it feels important to share the behind-the-scene improvisation and development that goes on.. My pledgemusic crowdfund is a great way to do this, thanks to the generous critical feedback, encouragement and (gulp) hard deadline.. If you haven’t joined it yet, you can do it here!

Sound to light for light to sound


I collaborated with xname on a performance as xynaaxmue on Saturday, audio+video up soon I hope.. xname performs with circuits that turn light into sound, improvising noise using stroboscopic lights. I was live coding with tidalcycles, as ever.

In the past I’ve created flashing patterns on an external monitor for xname’s circuits to feed off, check here for a recording of that one. This time I wanted to control a pair of RGB flash panels over DMX.. I used a tinkerit DMX hat for the arduino, officially retired but you can still find them online and the library is downloadable on github.

I hacked together a Tidal interface the night + morning before the conference, and it worked pretty well.. The Haskell and Arduino code is here.

With everything loaded up, Tidal code like this triggers flashes of light as well as sound:

x2 $ every 2 (slow 2) $ (jux (rev) $ foldEvery [5,7] (slow 2) 
   $ (slowspread (chop) [64,128,32] 
   $ sound "bd*2 [arpy:2 arpy] [mt claus*3] [voodoo ind]"))
  # dur "0.02"
  # nudge (slow 4 sine1)

The basic features:
  • sound – (sample name) is translated into colour in a semi-arbitrary way (a mapping which falls back on some crypto hashing)
  • pan – (kind of) pans between the two lights
  • dur – controls the duration of the flash
  • the flashes have a linear fade, which works across chop and striate
  • it is kind of polyphonic but the colour mixing can be improved.. mixing coloured light seems to get into the realm of philosophy though !

Will update with documentation of the performance itself when it’s up.


forkbombThis is how it began, with a forkbomb.. In 2001, Ade encouraged me to enter the Transmediale software art award, that he’d won the year before. I ended up submitting this:

my $strength = $ARGV[0] + 1;

while (not fork) {
  exit unless --$strength;
  print 0;
  twist: while (fork) {
    exit unless --$strength;
    print 1;
goto 'twist' if --$strength;

It basically creates a process that keeps duplicating itself, while printing out zeros and ones, creating patterns from a system under heavy load. It won (half) the prize, and ended up being part of the touring Generator exhibition curated by Geoff Cox and Tom Trevor, alongside Adrian’s auto-illustrator and work by other pretty amazing artists.

I’ve been co-curating the Thinking Out Loud exhibition at the Open Data Institute, and we’ve ended up including it in a couple of different forms.. A print of the original forkbomb output that appeared on the Generator exhibition guide, the (now rather scruffy) fanfold paper output that was printed during that exhibition, and a new print showing outputs from a range of different computers and operating systems contributed by some brave people (download PDF).

The original script, including some background and instructions for running it, is here.

Project stock check

Not much time to reflect right now, but taking some time to think about ongoing and upcoming activities at least..

Making Spicule LP is going pretty well, the crowdfund is past the halfway mark, the graphic and hardware design coming together with ace collaborators I’m hardly worthy of working with, and I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time in my studio over the summer.

My Open Data Institute sound art residency isn’t going too badly either, I’ve been working on an exhibition there called Thinking Out Loud with curator in residence Hannah Redler which opens soon. It’ll include great work by Felicity Ford, David Griffiths and Julian Rohrhuber, Ellen Harlizius-Klück, Dan Hett, David Littler, Antonio Roberts, Sam Meech, and Amy Twigger-Holroyd, and a ‘looking screen’ where I’ll be able to make my activities during the residency public, as I move from a research phase to making some strange things. I’ve also brought my 2002 “forkbomb.pl” software artwork out of retirement.

A few writing projects wrapping up – the Oxford Handbook on Algorithmic Music coming out of its formal review stage, a special issue of Textile journal coming together, polishing off an article in a special issue of Contemporary Theatre review with Kate Sicchio about our Sound Choreographer <> Body Code collaboration (deadline tonight, erp).. Plus a collaborative book project on live coding emerging nicely.

Quite a few events coming up, including organising an euleroom event, an Algorave tent at EMFCamp, and looming on the horizon — a new festival on Algorithmic and Mechanical Movement (AlgoMech for short) in November. AlgoMech will be a big focus really, but I’m on the way I’m looking forward to some collaborative performances, an audio/visual noise performance with xname (interleaved as xynaaxmue) at the third iteration of Live Interfaces, and a performance at computer club in Sheffield with Alexandra Cardenas. Hoping to play again with Matthew Yee-King as Canute soon, and maybe Slub will burst out on the scene again as well.

I’m also finding more time to contribute to TidalCycles, which is starting to feel like a proper free/open source project now, with quite a few exciting developments and side-projects spinning off it.

I’ve had a great time there, but am wrapping up my research and teaching work in the University of Leeds, just a spot of supervision to do now and I’m done. All being well, I’ll be joining a new five-year project in a research institution, starting in a couple of months time, lead by Ellen Harlizius-Klück and working also with FoAM Kernow.

That’s about it I think.. It seems like a lot, but it actually feels like everything is coming together and becoming easier to think about.. Especially the AlgoMech festival which brings together just about everything I’ve been doing and interested in since.. forever, really.. and can’t wait to get stuck into a new strand of research.

BBC Introducing West Yorkshire

Just had some fun with Joanne on BBC Radio Leeds, here’s the recording:

Inhabiting the Hack


During the latter half of 2015 I organised / collaborated with a range of “alternative hackathons” and related events re-imagining the role of technology in creative practice. I’ve now collected documentation including a range of videos on the website, it was a really great series of events to be involved with, together with dozens of really nice people. Have a look here.