On Friday, I rode to the far reaches of the Metropolitan line to Uxbridge for the BEAM festival. My purpose was to hear a number of speakers in a discussion on live coding, a relatively new area of music performance wherein individuals or ensembles improvise electronic music by programming in the moment. Typically, live coding performances display the code to their audience.
Alex McLean, Benoît and the Mandelbrots, and Sam Aaron were there to represent their trade. Sam Aaron is currently developing Overtone, a live coding environment based on Clojure. Aaron is of the opinion that at the moment in live coding, many languages are tailored towards helping musicians become programmers, but that it may be easier to create musicians out of programmers.
Alex McLean, one of the fathers of live coding, commented on the purpose of displaying code to an audience that may not be able to understand it, especially if they have little previous knowledge either of programming, audio manipulation, or algorithms. McLean feels that the importance of the code is to demonstrate to the audience that there is a structure being built up that is reflected in the music. Another line of executed code, another voice added to the music: the audience does not need to work out the intricacies of the code (which perhaps even the programmer does not in the heat of the moment) as long as they can understand the relationship between the code and what they are hearing.
Benoît and the Mandelbrots, a highly regarded quartet from Germany, contributed to the discussion with information about their own practices and live coding requirements. Unlike some ensembles, they do not “share” code between their respective stations. They discovered that attempting to do so was just too much information coming in too quickly. Instead, they perform with their own “instruments” and interact with each other, similar to a traditional band with bass, guitar, percussion, etc. The Mandelbrots practice around once a week, although they do not work to polish specific songs, preferring to improvise performances in keeping with the live coding community’s expectations. They have also found that while audiences may not be able to completely understand the code, many seem to enjoy the challenge of decoding what is happening on the quartet’s screens during the performance.
I was also able to hear interesting presentations over other recent innovations and directions in electronic music. I have been deeply fascinated with music involving computers, electronic techniques, and unique instruments since my introduction to the concept early in my undergraduate years. Some of my favorite presentations this weekend included the Acouspade (Acoustic Space Delimiter), a “sound gun,” if you will, that can concentrate and project sound waves directionally. When the presenter swept the speaker over the audience, as it passed by suddenly I felt as if I was wearing headphones and someone had quickly turned the sound on and then off again. He demonstrated how the waves could be bounced off of walls and surfaces as well, so the speaker could be pointed away from me, yet my ears felt as if it was directly behind me. Very cool.
Another great presentation was from Bruno Zamborlin with the MOGEES project. He showed us how a contact microphone was used to send information to a computer that interpreted touch and movement. Depending on the touch recognition, audio is generated, meaning that this is now the number one thing on my Christmas list. Take a look at the link and watch the video, you will also think it is awesome!
There was a speech by Sergi Jordà, one of the minds behind the Reactable, who gave us a chance to play with one. I found it difficult to use, to be honest, although the interface reminded me a bit of using Pure Data because of the connections and interaction between nodes. Most of my difficulty in using the table was because I lacked familiarity with the meaning of the symbols. Although I could understand easily enough which block was meant to be a LFO or filter envelope, some of the blocks with seemingly random squiggles, folders, and other icons were less intuitive, and connecting them with other nodes did not necessarily explain their function. Given some time, I am sure I could more effectively use the Reactable, but at the moment I guess I’ll stick with cello!