Category: rant

Thoughts on AlgoMech 2017


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AlgoMech – the festival of Algorithmic and Mechanical Movement is back for its second year. At one point I had strong doubts about doing a second edition of the festival (would it be AlgoMeh?) but it’s come together into something that I’m really excited about.

It will have an exhibition, with a nice mixture of machinery, textiles, projections and software art. Putting an exhibition together is way out of my comfort zone but with the artists involved I’m not worried. There’ll also be Open Platform performance art event within the exhibition, always revelatory events with performances about technology, but without technology. More to be announced, including work from Ellen Harlizius-Klück and FoAM Kernow.

The least likely performances will be from two bands bridging the divide between guitar+drums and techno. Amazingly 65daysofstatic (a band from South Yorkshire who want you to be happy) are going to headline, performing brand new work Decomposition Theory, three times. It’s unclear what they’re up to but it looks like it’s going to involve algorithms and maybe live coding (they’ve been known to dabble with gibber and also Tidal already).

Two of the 65dos shows will have the strongest support I could imagine in this context – aggrobeat band Blood Sport teaming up with live coder Heavy Lifting aka Lucy Cheesman. Blood Sport already make a kind of repetitive post-punk techno, with Lucy involved (as Heavy Bleeding) it’s going to be intense.

Then there’ll be the Algorave. It shows how far this scene has come that last year there were 12 top notch acts, and that they’ll be around the same again this year (more TBA) without repeats. Graham Dunning’s mechanical techno went down really well last year, so I’ve mixed in some more mechanisms this year. Firstly Faubel and Schreiber making minimal techno-generating robots, projected using an overhead projector. Also goto80 + Remin, where goto80 will do live tracking on a commodore 64, and Remin will provide a robotic hand, typing music on a commodore 64. The live coders I’ve booked have been doing amazing stuff lately. If last year is anything to go by, this is going to go off.. As a resident I’m happy to be collaborating with Dave Griffiths and Alexandra Cardenas as Slub as well..

The final day will be more relaxed and reflective. A longer form kinetic sound art performance from Ryoko Akama and Anne F, I’m hoping to find a special venue for that.. Then in the evening a Sonic Pattern event with five amazing mechanical music acts packed in – Leafcutter John, Sarah Kenchington, Naomi Kashiwagi, Camilla Barratt-Due and Alexandra Cardenas, and Peter K. Rollings. I’m trying to put my finger on this feeling I get from this group of people. It reminds me of my days organising dorkbot, it’s not a case of artists being happy to step out of their comfort zone. They are totally comfortable, they just cheerfully disregard all technological boundaries on their search for sounds and ideas, and just make amazing stuff.

A really nice symposium line-up is starting to emerge too, but that won’t be announced for a few days. Plus some hands-on workshops. .. and probably some more to come..

Anyway my hope is that by bringing these human artists together, working with algorithms and mechanisms, we’ll have the opportunity to really feel the connections between physical and abstract systems, and get a richer, longer (into the past and future) + human-centric view of what technology can be.

Interview on Resonance Extra

I had a great chat with Jack Chuter of ATTN:Magazine aired on Resonance Extra a couple of days ago. The associated tracklist is here and the archive is on mixcloud, the interview starts about 45 mins in:


Are Algorithms In Tune With Music?

I spoke to DJ Semtex about algorithms last month:

You can read the full article here.

TEDx Hull

Looking forward to talking about Algorave, live coding, TidalCycles and a cultural grounding for it all in pattern at TEDx Hull tomorrow. I have been a bit unsure whether the showbiz 15 minute talk was for me but preparing for it has been a nice exercise in organising my thoughts, and I am now really looking forward to it. I’ll do some semi-improvised live coding, hopefully won’t crash and burn.. The rest of the line-up is really interesting too.

Pattern Recognition

Text from an interview in the March 2016 issue of The Wire magazine with Emily Bick. I encourage you to subscribe!

The scene at an algorave is often what you’d expect from any good techno night – a dark room, engaging visuals, a decent, bass-heavy speaker set-up, and lots of people ready to dance. Except instead of a DJ up in a booth, or a producer tapping away behind a glowing Apple logo, performers at algoraves respond to each other and the audience in real time, often projecting the lines of code onto the walls as they type. lt’s coding as improvisation and experiment, and over the last decade and a half this kind of live coding has become increasingly visible, popping up at dedicated club nights and festivals around the world including Sonar, Ars Electronica and Transmediale.

Now Alex McLean, a research fellow in human/technology interfaces at Leeds University and one of the instigators of algoraves, has been chosen as the Open Data Institute’s first sound artist in residence, in association with Sound And Music. He had been working with live coding since 2000, when he met Adrian Ward, one of his partners in the long-running live coding ensemble Slub. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, we just had this idea of somehow wantıng to make music with programming languages. We all llstened to Autechre, and at the time the idea of the creative coder wasn’t…” he shrugs, continuing, “programmers were seen as people who implemented designs.”

Ward was doing a media arts course in Plymouth where he was introduced to generative music, “He started making his own software to generate his music, and just leaving it running on stage.” says McLean, “but when we met up in London, and started first talking about bringing this live, there was a new version of [the computer music language] Supercollider which allowed live coding, and also a new language. ChucK, came out in the States. It just seemed like there was a moment where everyone – OK, not everyone, a really small group of strange people – thought it would be a really good idea to start making systems for writing live code to make music.”

Tidal – unrelated to a certain Jay-Z connected music streaming service – is the open-source language that McLean created to allow quick- response improvisation, now used by hundreds of musicians around the world. “I felt the need to develop something that was more immediate, because I was working with percussionists and finding that it would take several minutes before I could make a sound.” Tidal uses simple, one-word commands to apply functions to a pattern, and can link several computers over a local network to sync to a control pulse.

Watching him work, chopping and changing the lines of code that controls his loops by changing a number or adding a word to change a function, is like watching a graphic designer who has memorised keyboard shortcuts and can transform an image in seconds. Complexity emerges from simple instructions. With a few keystrokes, McLean transforms an arpeggio and a simple set of beats into complex polyrhythms that pan in decaying arcs across speakers. He granulates sound patterns and reverses them, and creates blobby, queasy Aphex Twin-style textures before switching up samples to produce something nasty and sputtering, like the filthiest work of The Bug. It’s pure concentration and flow, and in an algorave setting it can throw up quite a few surprises.

As well as other coders. McLean performs with musicians who play traditional instruments, as well as live artists and choreographers. But successful improvisation depends on communication between players – and how does this square with the concentration needed to live code? He describes watching a video of a performance with collaborator Matthew Yee King, in their group Canute: “We’re next to each other on the stage, and there’s quite a lot of points where I’m iooking at him, and that performance was, I think, quite possibly the best I’ve done. There’s a lot of points where we both finish at the same time, just somehow communicate an episode so we time it and change, which has been quite rare for me.”

This kind of rapport becomes more difficuit when working with choreographers or performance artists.  He did another piece with the performance artist Suzanne Palzer, where she stepped on and off a platform. Her movement off the piatform caused the screen showing his code to go biank, and it would light up again when she stepped back on. She was, McLean says “trying to interrupt and interfere – and I was trying to remember where my code was! Suzanne’s work is about digital art but without computers, just these off and on movements.”

Apart from its use in improvising music. Tidal can be used to apply functions to patterns of any kind, not only sound. McLean will be working with the Open Data Institute to take aspects of large public data sets and represent them in new ways. In one of his academic papers that explains the pattern functions of Tidal, McLean uses visual representations – coloured blocks layered in rows to demonstrate the effects of functions on the code.

His examples look like knitting patterns, and another of his collaborative projects explores weaving. “The idea is to try to represent the weaves with code – and there are all of these problems.” he says, discussing everything from the three-dimensional nature and tactile properties of different materials to the ‘edge problem’ – many commercial textile software programmes ignore the edge of the fabric. “People think of code as being really complicated, and weaving as really simple and repetitive, but when you actually look at weaving, it’s incredibly complex.” He gives workshops to introduce non-coders to Tidal, and “people who haven’t programmed anything before start making music together in a couple of hours”, he says, smiling. “It’s kind of on the level of understanding knitting patterns or something like that.”

Emily Bick


(a thought in progress..)

Like many I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts about the writing of Mark Fisher, and his untimely death. As Nathan Jones put it, “Mark Fisher was a giant. Such a cruel irony that the man who so eloquently and honestly articulated the links between mental health, politics and economics would be taken from us like this, at this time.”

It’s OK to be unsatisfied with the way things are going, culturally, politically.

I’m starting to think about the next AlgoMech festival, and Peter Rollings got in touch about his Experimental Sonic Machines. He doesn’t have a website, but intrigued, I searched out this documentary someone had made about his machines and street performances:

I can’t really summarise this, it has to be watched. The work with found materials, the open, reflective approach to creativity, the machines, the self-deprecation against the startling, edgy music.. I love it.

There’s more videos on youtube, footage of some pretty amazing looking performances and constructions.. and also Rollings appearing on Britain’s got talent. From the start it’s stomach churning, childish playground bullying, mocking someone because they don’t fit with sickly, oppressive norms. After the previous video, it’s a miserable experience. Adds something to the classically-Guardian headline “Is Simon Cowell to blame for the end of western civilisation?

How can we strip away this awful, retrogressive misery, and make space for genuinely new culture+ideas to emerge? On this tip, it’s good to hear that Alexandra Cardenas is taking her live coding to street performances, like Rollings, finding public space to try new things out.

I’ll leave you with this from Fisher:

Live coding

I’m starting to blog on Medium, here’s a crosspost of an introductory post:

Live coding

From around the year 2000, musicians, visual artists and choreographers have been popping up around the world to form a community of live coders. This community uses programming languages to create live work, predominantly in the performing arts. This idea appeared from different places in various flavours, such as just-in-time programming and on-the-fly programming, although the term live coding has became standard.

Patchwork portrait of seminal live coding band Powerbooks Unplugged (2004-),
film by Jonas Hummel (2010)

But, liveness and code form an unlikely friendship. On one side, liveness is about direct, unmediated connection, in the moment. On the other, code is about abstraction, generalisation, procedures to be replayed across different timespans and media. From this perspective live coding is almost oxmoronic — liveness is about now, code is about whenever. It is no wonder that many live coders purposefully embrace error and failure — their practice runs against our understanding of what code is for.

ALGOBABEZ at Algorave Leeds, 2016

But when we write code not to make reuseable software, but to create in the moment, it takes on a very different quality, something closer to the embodied experience of speech. Live coders can work across networks or across disciplinary boundaries, pushing against the distinction between natural and computer languages.

Shared Buffer (Alexandra Cardenas, David Ogborn, Eldad Tsabary, Alex McLean)
@ Pikselfest Norway, 2014

Live coding has developed and grown over the past 17 years into a thriving, international community, meeting to create symposia [1,2], festivals [1,2], conferences, concerts and long nights of techno. All these performances involve the act of computer programming as performance: instructions are written and modified by a human while a computer executes them. Proclaiming “show us your screens”, live coders open up the developing structure and movement behind their work by projecting their screens, so the audience can experience the code grow alongside the development of its output.

Study in Keith, Andrew Sorensen

The experience of live coding is a strange one. Locked in a state of creative flow, working in a world made entirely of symbols, words and text, while simultaneously hyper-aware of the passing of time, and of the sound generated from the composition of those symbols. Hearing is a sense of touch, a way to feel the code. This is amplified further by the presence of others in the room, whose expectations you play with and respond to.

Kindohm @ ICLC 2016, Hamilton

Live coding isn’t a genre, or a set of tools, but a community of diverse practices, rolling back history to look for paths not taken — stripping back the graphical user interface to find the language machine underneath. Then, not using the language to describe already-made designs but to explore live thought, externalised through language.

REPL Electric — The Stars

Deactivating facebook

I’ve ‘deactivated’ my facebook page, for the usual reasons – the inability to actually share things with people without being filtered out, privacy concerns, general lack of transparancy and annoyance. It’s a pretty strange process, a bit like changing your ADSL provider, where the site proposes various arguments for why you should stay, puts you on guilt trips about the people who will miss you, etc.

Then when it’s finally done it turns out that all you’ve really done is the equivalent to blocking all your friends. If they go to your page it will pretty much look like you’ve blocked them, harsh! There’s no way of leaving a ‘I’m taking a break’ message or anything like that. So this is the main reason for this (fairly boring, sorry) blog post, to let you know that I haven’t blocked you on facebook!

It’s also extemely easy to re-activate your account – you just log back in and you’re insta-restored.. So quite a lot of friction to leave, and none whatsoever to return.

There are alternative ways of deactivation, as kindohm pointed out on the twitter, you can just unfollow everyone and everything. I found some tips here that make this easy, it’s a nice way of deactivating on your own terms, not facebook’s.. But still it wasn’t quite enough for me, so I’ve gone the official route.

I haven’t decided whether I’ll return or not, but in the meantime you can find me on the TOPLAP slack, twitter, send me an email, or drop by to chat in person either at Access Space labs on Fitzalan Square in Sheffield UK, or Deutsches Museum in Munich DE, or somewhere between..

Update – started getting people asking why I’d unfriended them so reverted to the Hodnick method, reactivated but not following anything. Harumph.


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..

Interview in The Wire magazine


I had an enjoyable, far-reaching chat with Emily Bick and the results are in the March issue of The Wire magazine. Emily has managed to fit in quite a lot about Algorave, Slub, Canute, Tidal, Weaving Codes and Susanne Palzer. The last time live coding was featured was March 2008, in a review of the first (and so far, last) TOPLAP CD including a track from Slub:

A prehistory of Live Coding TOPLAP CD
Four years ago, in a smoky bar in Hamburg, Toplap was formed — an organisation dedicated to promoting live algorithm programming. So far, so niche. Defying expectation however, it has since exploded into a fully functioning electronic music scene, with hundreds of practitioners improvising with live coding languages such as SuperCollider and ChucK. That is, writing, rewriting and modifying music software on the fly during performance (often with the rapidly changing code projected on a screen).

The cream of this scene’s live recorded output has now been collated on Toplap’s inaugural release. Despite superficially geeky origins — many performers are coders first, musicians second — the music here is stacked with depth, guts and soul. Opener “Water Surface” by Ron Kuivila is a featherlight study, shimmering with static broken by bursts of bee-like feedback. In contrast, The Hub’s “Hub x 6” is an
analogue-style fun fest of farty trumpet bursts and spaceship noise. RedFrik’s ticklish “Aug 19” is Luke Vibert-style acid, but with enough rhythmic aberrations to take it beyond twee. “20060401folded” by scene forerunners Slub is a compelling, edgy slice of rollercoaster Techno. In truth, it’s hard to believe much of the music here is essentially freewheeling software reined in by finger tapping humans. Live coding has so far flourished, but under a bushel. Perhaps it’s time the rest of us got a look in.  Susanna Glaser

I think it’s a nice bushel, I hope we can stay there a bit longer.