In the above, in a beautiful lecture that I am still digesting, Kodwo Eshun quotes from an unpublished manuscript by Mark Fisher, talking about the forces suppressing “the collective capacity to produce, to care, to enjoy”.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.


  1. Need to think more about this but interested to read about your approach. I feel like I’m using Tidal in two different ways. I’m quite determined to only use the ‘blank slate’ approach when performing live, as I agree that the improvisational and immanent aspects of the process are what make it really exciting. But I’m also excited about how to use tidal to write compositions, things to record, in the studio – and how the program itself is part of the composition. It does things easily which other programs find difficult. Its limitations are also really exciting to me. I don’t want to learn it too fast as i find the ‘not knowing’ to be a real driving factor.
    I think you’re right to keep in mind the root of the project and what it was intended to be – but also think that increasing exposure and allowing more people to see a different approach is exciting too.

  2. Really interesting Alex. Thinking along similar lines myself at the moment. The holiday from capitalism point seems to relate in some ways to Terre Thaemlitz’s criticism of Attali and the kind of freedoms you mention, that basically it requires some form of state support, UBI or similar, PhD funding in this case I suppose, to operate outside of the market.

    I was also interested in your mention of process, product and perhaps aesthetics. It’s interesting how the radical/alternative economies of free software in the arts often resulted in a focus on process to circumnavigate commodification, but I wonder how far a ‘radical’ process of production (both in terms of development and artistic production) requires a radical aesthetic realisation. There’s perhaps a better model in the trojan horse idea of alternative economic models encapsulated in a pop aesthetic, which I suppose I see a little of in your piano house experiments and the like …

    Hope this isn’t too much “more of a comment than a question” … looking forward to your further thoughts.

  3. Yes all good points Graham. As I say I’m also composing, and the above is meant as much a reflection on my own practice as anything. I was in a bit of a hurry so didn’t word things with due care.. Blank slate isn’t the origin of live coding, and isn’t the only radical take on it (I have in mind the Republic network music system for example, or the History class).

    I’m very interested in alternatives to blank slate, even going in the opposite direction. Blank slate may run against commodification, but following the argument set out in the lecture, maybe a better approach would be to embrace commodification. Rather than rejecting recordings, make it extremely easy to make and share perfect recordings, by default. For the last week or so I’ve started recording every keypress I do with Tidal, each with an accurate timestamp, and I’m sad about what I’ve lost by not doing this sooner.

  4. I think you’re totally right to draw the comparison between a PhD and UBI, Will — happily, I was given a lot of freedom during my PhD, so it did feel like a basic income, a huge privilege.

    I think part of the draw to add more detail and temporal structure is indeed to be able to make music that works within/twists a pop aesthetic. To make music that people actually want to listen to but that dreams of a different future. I guess that’s what Mark Fisher writes a lot about in “ghosts of my life”. Maybe it’s hinted at by ‘algorave’ too.

  5. I have an unpublished essay on this kind of thinking, heavily indebted to Mark Fisher (what isn’t?) in which I deconstructed my approach to TidalCycles, to interrogate how much capitalism/the commercial pressures of existing in the music industry for the last 15 years has shaped my creative choices, despite my best efforts. It was troubling, kind of depressing, but, I think, quite useful.

    I can’t speak to the developer perspective, only a musical one… It isn’t very surprising to me that as TidalCycle blooms into the consciousness of the wider music-making world, it hits these kinds of problems. The music industry is the long-dead canary in the mine of late capitalism.

    Ideally, I want to say that the goal shouldn’t be engaging with it, or fixing it, it should be to entirely transcend its ideas and expectations. To create a world where there are no such things as bands or musicians. Because everybody has become a musician. Utopia or bust!

    On the other hand, sometimes I just want music to lead me somewhere and give me reassurance from the beginning that it knows where we are going to end up.

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