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What on earth is livecoding?

One foot in the algorave: the computer programmers making code you can dance to

Alex McLean is a programmer and live coder. He performs with a livecoding band called Slub and tours with the travelling Algorave festival. But what is “livecoding” exactly? “Live coders are basically performing by writing computer programs live on stage, while the programs are generating their art - whether that’s visuals or music,’ McLean says. “Their computer screens are projected, so that the audience can see the code being manipulated. But the focus is on the music, on people dancing and seriously enjoying themselves”. In the run up to an Algorave aboard the MS Stubnitz, London, we met McLean who did his best to scramble our brain.

Do you think a newcomer to the algorave scene would leave enlightened or mystified?
Hopefully they would enjoy the music without feeling that they were compelled to understand it. Also because we're making music, not doing formally specified software engineering, there's no real ground of understanding anyway, apart from the music itself. Even those making the software don't really have to understand it - "bugs" often get into the code which don't make sense, but still sound good, so we just go with it.

Is there any genre or activity which you feel livecoding resembles?
In terms of algorithmic music, on one side there's the "electroacoustic" focus on experimental sound, the search for new dimensions of timbre and musical movement. But Live coding is a way of making music and is not tied to any particular genre. I've heard live coders make drone music, jazz, indian classical music, indie covers, and hip hop manipulated beatbox.

How do ideas circulate throughout the scene?
There's a big overlap with free and open source culture, so sharing ideas in the form of software and sourcecode happens a great deal. There are many languages for algorithmic music and video, such as Supercollider, Fluxus, ChucK, Impromptu and PureData, and strong communities of practice have grown around them.

Are your fellow algoravers proficient programmers?
Yes, many livecoders make and adapt their own programming environments: that takes some experience. But proficiency at coding dance music is different to making financial systems or whatever. I've run workshops where I've got non-programmers making acid house together in a couple of hours. I think there's real possibility to make producing algorave music more like drumming circles, where beginners can just join in and learn through doing.

Can any sort of coding be a creative activity? Or only certain forms, like livecoding? 
Creativity is a surprisingly recent concept, and not that well defined, but I like to think of it as everyday behaviour, which most people engage in daily. Coding generally involves making sense out of huge, crazy structures, and it's impossible to get anywhere without zoning out into a state of focussed, creative flow. 

You claim you'd like to make programming more like a synthesiser. How would that be different from the other software systems that people use to make music?
I think it's important to consider programming as exploration rather than implementation, because then we are using computer languages more like human languages. Any software interface can be thought of as a language, but the openness of programming allows us to set our own creative limits to explore, instead of working inside fixed, pre-defined limits. To me this is using computers on a deep level for what they are - language machines.

Who (or what) inspires you?
If I had to pick one person it would have to be Laurie Spiegel, I love the way she writes about using computer language to transform musical patterns.