In the above, in a beautiful lecture that I am still digesting, Kodwo Eshun quotes from an unpublished manuscript by Mark Fisher, talking about the forces suppressing “the collective capacity to produce, to care, to enjoy”. From my perspective, this makes me think about the ideals of free software, and the practicalities of trying to carry it out. I made TidalCycles in the world of free software (operating systems, libraries, documentation passed down freely from others), on a ‘holiday from capitalism’ supported by student and academic grants and arts residencies, giving it away for free. I was able to absorb a lot of prior work during this time, to help me create something new. Quite a few others have now joined TidalCycles as a free project, and many more in using it. How is capital blocking this collective capacity to produce, to care to enjoy?
I suppose the more radical positioning of live coding in general, more common in the early days, is now being lost. This is the idea that live coding is about experience, not end-product, that to live code is to improvise in and for the moment, that at the end of a performance you have nothing left. The desire to produce music that can be repeated, that can be sold as a product, is I think starting to drown out the idea of ‘blank slate’ improvisation. As people (myself included) crave music with more composed detail, more temporal structure, we get outside the current limits of the live coder in the moment, and take the easy route of introducing pre-written structures, suitable for packaging up as ‘tracks’. We go through the motions of selling them on bandcamp, probably making back a hundredth (or even thousandth) of a minimum wage, but trying to legitimise what we’re doing within the value structure of a past record industry.
By giving away free software with a permissive license, partly as an invitation for others to jump in and contribute features, ideas, and documentation, in practice you also invite people to grab the software and treat it as a ‘tool’ within a ‘workflow’ based on commercial software. This seems innocuous, and to question this behaviour runs against the assumed aim for software to reach as many end-users as quickly as possible. But this aim rides over many other potential aims (e.g. to grow sustainably, to create an alternative), and pursuing it forces a free software collective into interacting with commercial institutions, thereby taking on their value structures. Where Tidal users are also users of commercial software (including MacOS and Microsoft Windows), they’re already trained to think in terms of centralised support and feature requests, and not the collective responsibility to produce, care and enjoy. There is always pressure for the community to divide into ‘developers’ and ‘users’, one serving the other, in a way which simply isn’t sustainable without the latter paying the former. Once we start looking for the users to indeed pay the developers, we’re running away from the possibilities of collective imagination.
I’m running out of time for this blog post, but how to respond to these thoughts? I guess resisting the easy answers, and instead keep looking for alternative paths that only free software culture can take. Re-imagining the programming language and text editor around the principle of data love – where sharing what you have only increases in value. More thoughts to follow.
Back in the glory days of slub I used to live code with Perl, and wrote a text editor (also in Perl) for it called ‘feedback.pl’. It was a strange thing, where you wrote self-modifying code to store data in the sourcecode for the music you were writing, and therefore visualise it. I’ve been intending to make something similar for tidal for ages, and took some time to finally start work. I’ve experimented with a weird visual editor for tidal before, and have been fiddling around with a web-based editor as well, but this time decided to write something that worked in the terminal, using the fantastic ncurses framework. This is partly so it’ll run nicely on the Pi Zero, for my ongoing Spicule project, but partly because it just makes sense for a text editor to work in text mode, and it’s good to start from basics without taking on the many assumptions of an existing ‘general purpose’ text editor. I’m just seeing where it takes me but I’m pretty happy with it so far, it has some structured editing around patterns already, some ascii VU meters going on, and every edit is automatically recorded + timestamped. It’s far from being in a usable state, but here’s a quick demo:
You can find it on github but I’m not inviting patches until it’s a bit more fully formed.
I had a great chat with Darwin Grosse at the end of last year, forgot to post it up until now!
There has been a lot of exciting live coding stuff coming out of Japan, with Renick Bell a major agitator with his Conductive system, plus a lot of audio/visual work from people like Atsushi Tadakoro. I’m really happy then to get an Arts Council England/British Council artist international development award to visit Tokyo myself, hosted by Renick. It’ll be great to link up with TidalCycles people there, see what they’ve been doing with it, as well as perform + run workshops. Can’t wait..
It’s out! It took a little bit longer than planned, but hugely happy to have the Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music in my hands finally, containing a fine diversity of perspectives on algorithmic music. Hopefully available from your local library, and available from your local independent bookshop too. Huge thanks to all the authors, the publishers and of course Roger Dean – we co-edited the book together very much as an equal partnership.
Outwardly, liberapay looks similar to patreon, but the details are very different. I tried setting up a patreon fund before but it didn’t fit. I still have an on-going crowdfund (for the very overdue spicule album) so didn’t want to take on another one of those, and patreon is very similar to that. Patreon encourages you to communicate with your funders, reward them with secret ‘content’, and market yourself to get as many funders as possible. This doesn’t really work for me because realistically, I’m never going to get enough funding to justify time on marketing myself or creating ‘exclusives’, at least if I cost my time at a-n recommended rates.. Even if I did, I don’t want to spend my time on marketing, I want to spend it on making music and free software. Exclusive content is also against the principles of free software, I don’t want to only speak to those who can afford it.
Liberapay is different though, it’s about anonymous donations, so you don’t know who your contributors are, and contributions can’t be linked to rewards in any way. Liberapay themselves are a non-profit, don’t take a cut on contributions, and aren’t interested in training you up as a self-promoter..
I thought I’d start with seeing if people wanted to contribute to ongoing server (and dns registration) costs for toplap, algorave etc. Within a few hours, that was already covered! This feels surprisingly good. It’s a comparatively small amount every week but adds up to a lot over time, and it’s great to have the feeling that people value it, and that those with spare money are happy to contribute. It’s a bit weird not knowing anything about who is giving me money (unless they tell me), but I think this is really nice, as I don’t really want to feel like I need to treat people differently based on whether they are giving my projects, or how much.. and the lack of perks/rewards means people only give if they don’t have fixed expectations about what I’m going to produce in response.
So now on to the second step — contributing towards Tidal development.. It’s still difficult to apply this to my work, as most of it is around TidalCycles, and I’m nervous about bogging down that project with issues around who should get paid for doing what (although liberapay does allow distribution of donations).. I also don’t want to take the pleasure out of working on Tidal with outside pressure. But for now have nominated an aspect of Tidal I’m really keen to work on (communal docs) and will see how it goes. It’s not going to fund a significant percentage of my time, but it is hopefully going to help me work a bit more than usual, and generally push things forward.. Feel free to support this, and unless you’re shy, let me know if you do!
2017 had it’s ups and downs, many friends made but also some enemies, hoping to improve on that front next year.
I probably did more performances than ever before, a whole load in Sheffield plus Berlin, Huddersfield, Leeds, Newcastle, London, Brighton, Morelia, Guadalajara and some big festivals Transmediale, Green Man, Shambala, Blue Dot, No bounds, Unconscious Archives.. It was good to focus on UK performances, and in particular Sheffield, the scene is getting stronger here now with interest in live coding from proper local promoters like Off Me Nut and Hope Works.
I didn’t do so many talks, I’ve shrunk away from going to conferences etc for various reasons. I did do a few of these ‘punchy’ public talks though, a TEDx talk in Hull, and similar things in Bump Festival in Belgium and Thinking Digital Arts up in Newcastle. It felt good to force myself to get better in explaining things. It was a real honour+pleasure to finish up the year with a keynote talk at ICLC 2017 in Morelia, as I said at the time, if you want to be invited to give a keynote all you have to do is start an international conference then wait two years.
The big thing was leaving Unviersity academia to join the PENELOPE project as post-doc in the Deutsches Museum in Munich (think MASSIVE science museum). I’m still based in Sheffield but visit Munich regularly as part of this five-year project. It’s a part-time position, so in theory I’ve can spend 50% of my time on music. It’s not quite worked out that way but hopefully will get closer to that next year.
The other big thing was AlgoMech festival (part-organised by PENELOPE), five days in November that took months on end of planning and fundraising to pull off. In the end it went pretty damn well, great exhibition+symposium and all the performances were totally amazing. We got some nice coverage in Makery, The Wire, The Guardian and from this nice blogger.. It destroyed me (as you can witness in the Guardian video) but a few fine people want to get involved to make it a collaboratively organised thing and we’re looking at May 2019 for the next one.
I’ve got involved in some lovely collaborations, e.g. TidalClub with Lucy, and most recently a techno collab Class Compliant Audio Interfaces with Sam/Damu. I’ve also done some great collabs with Joanne, Alexandra (who has found her way into Slub) and a/v shows with Miri.
With the afore-linked Guardian video and a couple of mixmag articles, and appearances in Electronic Music magazine, Vice and even Mary Anne Hobbs’s show on BBC Radio 6 it feels like we made a breakthrough with Algorave in 2017. It feels like this has brought many positives but also negatives, it’s kind of easier doing something that no-one knows about, and I’ve always enjoyed small communities. I’m still definitely on for the ride, but looking for ways of keeping things interesting+fun.. AlgoMech was a big part of that, and I’m looking to broaden things out a bit with EulerRoom next year too.
Towards the end of 2017 I’ve managed to finish a couple of huge projects that are exciting in their own right but together were perhaps a little too much to take on. A real biggie was editing The Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music with Roger Dean, now with the printers and hitting the shelves February 2018.
I didn’t do much writing in 2017, but was happy to contribute a piece to Furtherfield on Lessons from the Luddites, and to collaborate with Kate Sicchio on an article and interactive online thingie about our Sound Choreographer <> Body Code project.
My crowdfunded album ‘spicule’ is now ridiculously over-schedule but I have a clear path now.. and a lot of material built up from these live streams:
It was great to start working with the Childrens’ Media Conference this year, running a tanglebots workshop with the amazing kids at Wybourn community primary school, the results contributing to the Playground digital art exhibition. At one point I asked the children to put their hands up if they’d hurt themselves, almost all immediately did.. Oops!
— Alex McLean (@yaxu) June 26, 2017
Amongst it all I’ve managed to put some work into TidalCycles, with the community around it growing really nicely with some people making music with it which is really far too good. I’ve done a whole load of TidalCycles workshops, next year planning to do one big one every month, to make tidal development more sustainable.. As well as helping run the free tidalclub meetups. One really nice thing was running a TidalCycles summer school, great fun and included an excusion into the nearby peak district for a group jam, check the below video..
That’ll do for now, although will likely drop back to add things I’ve forgotten, as I chew things over.. Plus the year isn’t over yet, really looking forward to the TidalCycles winter solstice party on 21st Dec!
When I listen back to an old live code performance that sounds too good to be anything I could have done, new ideas popping up through it and working out perfectly.. But there’s wave of sadness – it’s impossible that I could do anything like it again. Also a kind of loneliness, music that’s perfect for me down my cul-de-sac of obsession, but not for anyone else? Well, maybe the other people in the room at the time were feeling it too..
This could be a fundamental disconnect between music makers and music listeners though. Music makers have the power to make music that is perfect for them, exactly the music they want to hear.. But the results might well sound rubbish for everyone else if they haven’t shared your journey. There is skill in bridging this gap as much as possible, trying to let people into your world, not being self-indulgent, while also not compromising to much on your obsessions..
A couple of things to share:
1. Happy to be introducing live coding to the Off Me Nut records halloween special, a proper Sheffield warehouse party on 27th Oct 2017. They made me this months “five star spooky recommendation”, putting the pressure on..
2. I had a great time playing the Haptic Somatic night at Unsound Archives festival, and the following morning was interviewed by Elsa Ferreira for the french edition of Vice’s Noisey. You can read the results here if you know French, or otherwise enjoy the google translation.
3. Lastly, had fun times in a live code duet with Joanne at the No Bounds Algorave last weekend, here’s the video: