Photography by Niklas Zimmer

Programming Music as Performance

At first glance a live coding show doesn’t seem all that different from any other electronic music show with various electronic sounds emanating from speakers and the performer somehow triggering these sounds from their laptop. Upon closer inspection though it becomes clear that rather than simply playing pre-created loops in a linear fashion, the artist is actually performing using a special programming environment and is shaping their performance through bits of code which generate and affect the various sounds.

Although live coding has practitioners all over the world, South African representation ends at Aragorn23, a Johannesburg based experimental musician who has been composing experimental, noise, ambient and techno music since the mid-90s. He was drawn to live coding because it was more engaging than what regular electronic music performances offer. “For me finding live coding was a very interesting way around this. Because you’re basically using your laptop and your coding environment as a live performance instrument,” explains Aragorn23.

Born in the early 2000s live coding is the practice of creating music on the fly using computer source code. Combining algorithmic composition with improvisation, the performances take computer music into the realm of traditional instruments by adding a real time element to them. Pioneered by groups such as the UK’s Slub, performances are meant to be transparent to the audience with projectors displaying the code as the artist generates it. These projections are often augmented with visual programming tools such as Processing, linking the generated audio with visuals to create a synesthetic experience. “It’s this really intense correlation between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing. So different beats will trigger different visual patterns. Or when there’s a build up in the noise and intensity the brightness changes.”

The ethos of transparency applies to live coding as a whole with most of the tools performers use, such as SuperCollider and TidalCycles, being open source and people freely sharing their code with others in order to help each other learn techniques and create new works. “In general it’s this very collaborative egalitarian thing, people have GitHub accounts where they upload their code, the SuperCollider community has thousands and thousands of examples.  SuperCollider runs on reasonably old PCs so the barrier to entry is very low. There’s even Facebook groups where people chat about coding techniques.”

While the centers of live coding lie in the UK and Berlin, the last decade and a half have seen it grow in areas such as South America so that it is no longer a Eurocentric movement. “It’s a much broader community now and it’s not just male dominated anymore, there’s quite a few non-male identified people getting involved which is great,” notes Aragorn23. This is in part thanks to Alex McLean of Slub and Nick Collins who in 2011 coined the term algorave after hearing happy hardcore on the radio on the way to a gig which inspired them to program rave music. This more dance oriented sound has helped live coding reach a wider audience which in turn has led to more interesting sonic explorations. “Nowadays people are experimenting with huge numbers of genres with live coding. There’s a lot more experimental stuff, there’s a lot more sophisticated stuff, especially visually and that’s also because hardware has evolved.”

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