“Live coding is pretty unstable, so in a set we’ll build up algorithmic processes and then deconstruct them, break them down, tear things apart and outright break things,” writes Shelly Knotts about an emerging and broadly-defined genre of music-making, often referred to as Algorave. It’s a style, or approach rather, that sees many a technologically-minded performer using open-source software, like SuperCollider, TidalCycles, Gibber and others, to producing electronic dance through coding. Knotts is one of these artists, producing solo and in a duo called Algobabez with Joanna Armitage.
The two of them will be playing the ‘Dismantle Yourself‘ live event, curated by Graham Dunning, at London’s Somerset House on April 15. It’s a night of experimental sound that the press release describes as “intrinsically DIY. Everything hacked and torn. Immanent production. Process as performance as sensory stimulus.” Performing along with Dunning, Ewa Justka, dtub and NTS’ Alien Jams, Knotts and Armitage more than fit the bill of “dismantling the processes and foundations beneath the basslines and rhythms.” Their live sets are crashing, crunching, glitching affairs. Lo-fi computer sounds are composed in real-time on a laptop keyboard, its composers physically almost motionless, while a manic dance floor number thumps around them. Often there’s a black screen with the colourful coded text running along it (“WARNING keyword arg ‘quant’ not found”), gracefully, then haphazardly, as its syntax moves, shifts and disappears.
“I guess we’re coming at that from a process point of view,” adds Knotts about how Algobabez’s approach to live coding builds up and then disrupts these processes before turning them into something new. That’s where — in advance of the release of their Burning Circuits cassette tape release, also out on Fractal Meat Cuts on April 15 — the following conversation starts and ends, in getting things to sound right by doing something ‘wrong.’
Shelly Knotts: For me, it was a long series of semi-accidents over 10 years or so. I didn’t really choose to learn coding, I was just put on the coding module as an undergrad music student and through that got to know SuperCollider (the programming language we both use for live coding). I was mostly writing instrumental music at the time, but after that I went through some phases of using code in my work in various ways — live electronics for instrumental composition and then making fixed electronic work and then I joined a laptop band (BiLE) in 2011 and learned how to build software instruments and design controllers for improvisation.
I played my first live coding show in 2012 as I got invited to play an event at a gallery in Coventry where they wanted people who make experimental music to make dance music. I’d been aware of live coding and people using it to make beat based music for a while and figured whatever dance music I made would suck, so I may as well use it as an excuse to learn live coding. I felt that live coding gave me a lot more freedom to improvise and it felt a lot more performative than other types of laptop music production, so it became much more central to my practice. After that I played quite a few Algoraves as part of various collaborations and playing solo shows and more or less learned how to make dance music on the job.
Joanne Armitage: I am here by accident, I used to work across the hall from Algorave co-founder Alex McLean (aka yaxu) and he made me do it. Algobabez happened because we needed to condense a line up a bit and Shelly asked me if I would play with her and I swooned and said, “Yyyeeessss!!!! — errr… I mean go on then..?”
** Can you walk us through a little bit how you work collaboratively on stage?
SK: The collaboration is a bit freeform. We have a clock sync which is working over the network and ensures that we’re both playing in time with each other (although it’s a bit buggy, so sometimes it wanders a bit, leading to some unexpected time warp moments). Beyond that, there’s a tendency that Jo makes more of the beats as she’s an algorithmic drumming pro and I make more of the ambient/drone/sound effects-type stuff, as synths are more my forte. But even this isn’t really fixed, sometimesI get a bit bored and make some beats and melodies and vice versa. It’s all pretty open and we more or less just listen to what the other person is doing and try to fit in and complement it in some way.
JA: On our new Fractal Meat tape (!), you can hear the process of our collaboration on stage, we chat a bit and debug errors together. Like Shelly says, we switch roles, but I generally work on beats and Shelly builds up textures around them.
** Is your music made specifically for the dance floor? Do you think it has the same effect if it were played in a bedroom with headphones?
SK: I think I play really differently when I’m practicing at home — there’s less urgency to it, as you’re just playing to explore new sounds and new ways of using live coding. When I’m in front of a room full of people who are expecting to dance to the music there’s more pressure to keep things moving and interesting, which makes you play in a different way. I like doing both, but having the feedback from the room really drives you to new places sometimes, so I think this is just as important in developing your work as the more considered practice at home.
JA: Our music is made on the dance floor! I think Algobabez works best in the now. ‘Totally agree with Shelly on feedback from the room, the vibes from the crowd and the environment affect how you play so much.
** What’s the relationship between the sound and projections for you?
SK: We almost always project our sound-making code when we play. This is an integral, though hotly debated, aspect of live coding, which grew out of a reaction against obscuring your sound-making processes in 90s computer music. Basically, the idea is that you should allow the audience to see the process of making the music.
Sometimes we also play with Chez Sargent who makes visuals using a language called fluxus — I’m never really sure what’s she’s doing as we can never see the visuals when we play, so she’s more responding to our sound than the other way round.
JA: It’s good for proving you’re not checking email, paying off your credit card etcetera ;). But in all seriousness, the projections reflect a sense of liveness, and even if you’re not familiar with the programming language, you can still see patterns emerge. I’ve had a few people email me after gigs asking about the significance of certain numbers and syntax, and it’s really exciting to see people engage with your process so critically on an electronic music night.
** You’ve put on some workshops to get women involved in the scene, what do you think it is about live-coded music that inspires a lack of diversity?
SK: Compared to other sub-genres of electronic and computer music, live coding is relatively diverse, although this is largely due to members of the community working to improve diversity in the field. We’ve had quite a few new women come into the scene recently: Heavy Lifting, Belisha Beacon, Miri Kat, for examples, so I feel like we’re heading in the right direction!
JA: As a community, we are working hard to reinforce the importance of diversity. We are trying to take Algorave into different spaces and seeing what new perspectives that brings.
** Do you have any advice for people who may feel daunted but also curious about the prospect of learning live coding?
SK: Just not to be afraid of it, I guess. You can’t really get it ‘wrong’ with coding. I mean, of course you can crash your system, but you can just restart and try again. When I started live coding performance, I crashed in almost every set I played — but sometimes it’s really interesting and gives the music a new structure. Some crashes sound great, as well, like if you push the software too hard you can get nice glitch-y noisy sounds before it dies, for example. In live coding there’s a kind of community acceptance that it’s kind of unstable, so it’s more about what kind of music you get out of hacking around with the code than really about how good you are technically — you get some really great sounds out of really simple code! The community is really supportive of newcomers and learners too — so give it a go! 🙂
JA: I would suggest as well, try an easier language like ixiLang, or start a live coding club… or email us? Also try coding visuals or movements or something else non-musical, you may prefer it?**