Live Coding is one of the most interesting music phenomena of this century

Versione italiana su techeconomy.it

TOPLAP logo

From 14th to 17th February, an important Algorave took place: 84 hours of non-stop music in the what probably is the largest music show completely produced and distributed online of ever. The 14th February 2019, in fact, was the 15th anniversary since the birth of TOPLAP, the international online community of musicians active in live coding, that are musicians who improvise music programming in real time. If you read this article and I can convince you that it was worthwhile to attend this Algorave, you can save this link to access the event: https://toplap.org/wearefifteen/

Alexandra Cárdenas - street code

According to an interesting post on the TOPLAP community website, on February 14th, 2004, less than ten live coders met themselves in Hamburg to get in touch. They were people dispersed all over the world, pioneers of a method of making music that many people still oppose. Today, by comparison, more than 2,000 people have joined the TOPLAP collective chat.

A movement that has gradually expanded, therefore, maintaining as a distinctive feature the idea of using the computer as a real musical instrument to be exploited in improvised and live performances. The second particular aspect of TOPLAP is in the first two points of the manifesto: total openness of musical knowledge, of the tools used and of the creative process. TOPLAP live coders show the screen to the public so that everyone can see how they program. It’s a way to reconstruct the gestures of musical performance, which various experts identify as fundamental for the fruition of music. However, the screen show doesn’t turn in an ostentation of the technique because “it is not necessary for a lay audience to understand the code to appreciate it, much as it is not necessary to know how to play guitar in order to appreciate watching a guitar performance” (from the TOPLAP manifesto).

Ganzfeld - sperimentale

If the practice of improvising music with computers is much older and dates back at least to the 80s, the merit of TOPLAP was to organize the subculture of live coding and to create tools, even if rudimentary, to put in communication the artists, thus arriving at a rather precise definition of the genre.

The rapid growth of TOPLAP, especially in recent years, is a phenomenon not to be underestimated and that, indeed, can offer musicians a new opportunity to revive the meaning of live shows in the era of digital recordings, which have accustomed us to music that produces immutable works over time, which are always the same, today like ten years ago. I had a chat with some live coders on their communication channels and I am convinced that this practice will continue to evolve, grow, and will remain one of the most interesting musical movements of this century. Before explaining why, however, let me suggest you some videos to leave in the background - the choice was hard and I’ve given priority to the stylistic variety of TOPLAP rather than the goodness of the music.

Andrew Sorensen - jazz

1. Live Coders come from two countercultures and have created a new one

Live coding is born, in short, from the meeting of two subcultures: the one of hackers and the one of electronic music, with frequent references to the rave culture. Although the community agrees in considering the rave culture as only one of the many components of live coding, the result is the perfect union of the two: there are the ideals of sharing knowledge, the rejection of hierarchies, leaders, meritocracy. The organization takes up the “nerd” tools that are an alternative to the centralization of the internet, while the aesthetic discussions reject the dominant thought of the academies (or the presumed one). «The live coding scene - writes Alexandra Cárdenas - is a kind of prototype of a utopian community where everybody can contribute whether they have been playing for one day or ten years. This is a political question that has to do with the empowerment of diversity in different communities». On the website of the International Conference on Live Coding (ICLC), which assemble the academic component of the movement, explicit reference is made to the refusal of any verbal comment or offensive attitude concerning «gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion». It would take time doing an accurate analysis of live coding culture, given the number of testimonies and traces left on the net during these 15 years, including mailing lists, chats, wikis, repositories and websites.

Shelly Knots - sperimentale

A large part of the live coding community has experience in the academic world, often in contexts close to research in new music technologies. In a certain sense, the higher is the scientific knowledge of a live coder, the more advantaged he is in trying to reach new expressive solutions. This is because live coding takes advantage of state-of-art music production techniques and interfaces. In other words, many live coders create themselves the tools and libraries they need. This closeness with the musicological environment and at the same time with the popular world of dance music is definitely singular for the historical period in which we live, where “academic” music is still limited to a small elite group of professionals, just like in the last century. It seems, in short, that in the world of live coding the popular taste is finally finding common aspects of the most “studied” music.

3. Live Coding is live

The improvisational aspect of live coding is its essential characteristic. Once again, it is in contrast to the dominant culture, where studio recordings are still the main method of enjoying music. Recently, however, the big streaming services are stimulating a new way of perceiving the recorded track: we no longer go to the shop to buy a CD and to add it to our collection, but we rather take the smartphone and choose a song in a catalog vastly larger than that of the old recording store. We no longer need to filter the music that we listen to based on the description, nor we constrained to listen to the same recording because at home we have a limited list of CD. In short, we are no longer convicted to listen to the same music over and over again, but instead we can look for a new one; the factor that has unleashed many cultural changes in the twentieth century musical practices, the recording, loses strength. In short, no one knows the future, but the improvisational aspect of live coding, in addition to being perfectly consistent with the live coding counterculture, could also prove to be the right weapon to fit into this new social context where you listen to a song and you forget it (almost) immediately. In a certain sense, we are going back to the music practice of before the spread of the audio recordings, but a new, unrevealed way.

4. Live Coding opens up new scenarios without destroying the past

The technical possibilities offered by computer music are virtually endless. However, perhaps thanks to the experience of the early electronic music (eg, Schaeffer and Stockhausen), despite the so many new possibilities, live coding has not completely broken with the musical language in use but has deliberately chosen to recall itself to well-defined genres. In fact, live coders range over all existing music genres, from dance to jazz and pop to more avant-garde music. It is innovative in this aspect too: it is a musical non-genre, which does not base its identity on the semantic-musical structures that serve the record companies to sectorize the market, but on the basis of its production. If there is an element that is omnipresent in the live coding language, it is probably the repetition of patterns and at the same time the randomness in their generation, which refers to minimalist music; this, however, as I will explain later, is due to the limits of the current libraries for live algorithmic composition and not to the practice of live coding per se. In general, live coding attempts to innovate something existing, rather than destroying it and has no pretense of doing something better than the past.

Benoît and the Mandelbrots - etnica/sperimentale

5. Live coding is multimedia

Perhaps, my favorite aspect of live coding is its multimedia. The musical activity is often connected to visual arts activities, always live coded. Musicians and digital artists come together to create multi-level performances, sometimes - rarely - with explicit text messages projected onto the screen. Sometimes live coders also interact with actors, other musicians or others. Performance is not limited to the use of the computer, which sometimes arises more like a control room than a real tool.

6. Live Coding has virtually no expressive limits

From the 50s to today, computer music has created a great deal of practical and theoretical tools. Today we know how we can produce sounds of all kinds with a computer, simulating timbres of real objects or inventing new ones. We know how to modify the parameters of musical performances to obtain different expressiveness and emotions and we also know how to automatically create music in a way that is similar to human. Ok, this last point is only partially true, but it is quite common to let the computer produce autonomously music that respects particular constraints - like the music that humans write. What I mean is that the implementation of similar algorithms in a system for live coding is not unthinkable, although difficult for a small and hyper-fragmented community like TOPLAP. This is tied to the next point…

Sam Aaron - dance

7. Live Coding is still newborn

Despite being born 15 years ago and although it has grown enormously, TOPLAP is still quite small. The music technologies are constantly growing but the community has so far focused on possible interfaces, experimenting with visual, hybrid and text programming languages, focusing in particular on functional programming languages ​​- in this regard I had a discussion on the general chat of the group, most seem rather convinced of the superiority of the functional paradigm for the description of musical structures. Personally, even if I have tried just a little bit, I believe that live coding can make great leaps in quality by implementing other technologies (such as those mentioned in the previous point), which are independent of the interface used. The technologies that exist are relatively easily usable in live coding contexts due to the fact that it is not necessary the development of an entire graphical interface and the maintenance of compatibility between complex components as in the commercial software for music production.

All this is actually independent, I think, from the success or failure of live coding. What has been missing so far has been a great musical mind that knew how to make great use of the technologies. Without wishing to offend the current live coders, in my research I heard just a few performances that reached high artistic levels and not because of the technical difficulty - that will be slowly cut down. In short, musicians, go ahead because here there is land for you!

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