Category: rant

Thinking about 2017

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.. 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 MakeryThe 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 and also Alexandra, who has found her way into Slub.

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 The Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music, now with the printers and hitting the shelves February 2018. My crowdfunded album ‘spicule’ is now ridiculously over-schedule but I have a clear path now..

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.

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!

Obsession

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..

Recording, interview + off me nut

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:

 

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

Miserablism

(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