Sunday June 11, 2017

Turning code into something you can dance to

Musicians/coders perform at a live coding concert called an "algorave" (a portmanteau of algorithm and rave).

Musicians/coders perform at a live coding concert called an "algorave" (a portmanteau of algorithm and rave). (Flicker CC/Antonio Roberts)

Listen 9:20

Writing code is usually seen as a fairly technical skill. If you want to express yourself artistically, writing some lines in Python isn't the likely your first move.

But that's not the case for everyone. Some people are using code itself as a music instrument.

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The Cybernetic Orchestra preparing for to perform. (Josh Flear)

The Cybernetic Orchestra is a band of live coders at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario led by associate professor David Ogborn

Live coders write code in real time to, among other things, create improvised music, primarily using a language called Supercollider.

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Members of the Cybernetic Orchestra set up for a performance. (Josh Flear)

"Supercollider has a long history," David says. 

"At a relatively early point it involved a kind of conversational relationship with the computer. If you were working with Supercollider you would type something relatively small and you would make it go... and you would hear some sonic result... maybe get some other feedback about what you did, and then you'd go on and do something else." 

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Alexandra Cárdenas (@tiemposdelruido)

One important aspect of live coding performances is that the computer screens of the performers are visible to the audience.

"The audience's attention is partly on the code as it evolves in front of them, and perhaps also on the thought process of the performer as they program."

One person drawn in by the musical possibilities of live coding is Alexandra Cardenas.

Alexandra is a Colombian musician, now living in Berlin, who spent years training and working as a composer of western classical music, but she was drawn to the open source and improvisational philosophy of live coding.

 "I realized I had more affinity with Supercollider," Alexandra says, "not only philosophically, but also the way of thinking. When you are dealing with text you are not tied to graphical influence. So for me it freed my mind a lot of be able to describe for the machine what my musical ideas really were.

"If a human creates this from the beginning in an improvised manner, it gives space for a more human connection. It sounds paradoxical, because we're talking about a cyborg, an instrument that is made of man/machine, but what I see is that it allows us to become even more natural, more human, more authentic in our expression."