In the world of live coding, Alex McLean is a prime mover. His open source TidalCycles software is used by musicians across the world to code music quickly and dynamically in real time. He co-founded the Algorave movement, bringing programming out of obscurity and onto the dancefloor.
Writer Sarah Sharp (proficient in Microsoft Office, handy with Excel) went along to his studio at DINA, Sheffield, to find out more.
So what’s this Algorave I keep hearing about?
Algorave is a kind of stupid word that I came up with in 2012. Essentially, it’s the idea of taking live coding and using it to make dance music. People dancing to algorithms.
I see. And what can audiences expect at an Algorave gig?
So the idea is you see someone making the music in real time with their laptop. Usually, their screen is projected. You might actually see the code. Even if you don’t understand it, you can see keywords repeating and see them actually making something. That’s important to the Algorave ethos.
When people in the audience are quite new to live coding, they might just stand there, because it’s still a new experience. But now we’ve done quite a few in Sheffield it’s more of a party atmosphere. Especially when we collaborate with Hope Works and No Bounds Festival. Still, it’s people programming in a nightclub – it’s a bit of a strange thing!
Laptops and projected screens – I’m having flashbacks to Powerpoint presentations from my time working in too many office jobs…
It’s true there’s certain aesthetics are quite hard to get away from, but that’s all part of the challenge! Usually the coder will stand rather than sit – that begins to look way too office-y.
I am a musician – but only through code. I don’t have any other way of making music.
And it’s pretty intense to do live coding, so often the coder will look pretty focused. But it’s not supposed to be something that takes itself too seriously. If you’re performing at an Algorave I think you can’t really take yourself too seriously.
So ‘Algorave’ is – an event? A type of music? A way of being?
I suppose it’s the name of a movement. Anyone can put on an Algorave, though we’ve got certain guidelines people are supposed to follow. There were 70 in 2019 alone. In the last few years there’ve been Algoraves in over 80 different cities around the world, in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Japan. We had an exchange with Japanese live coders last year between Yorkshire and Tokyo.
Global domination – good, good. And it all began in Sheffield?
I was living in Sheffield when I started Algorave – I’m just one of the co-founders. Our first event was in London but we do lots in Sheffield and there’s a strong scene here. I wrote a live coding program called Tidal Cycles, which is free open source software. And there’s also Foxdot, made by Ryan Kirkbride in Leeds. So it’s a sort of mass export from Yorkshire.
Has it always been computers over acoustic instruments for you?
Yes – I learnt how to play the guitar but it was frustrating, I never managed to be creative with it. I don’t have any musical training. I’ve worked as a lecturer in a musical department but without any knowledge of music except this practice which I’ve developed over 20 years. In that sense I am a musician – but only through code. I don’t have any other way of making music.
Watch: Alex Mclean (Yaxu) live on Dommune Tokyo
What’s your music making process?
I generate sound as I code. I like to improvise. I’m happiest when I’m working from scratch – so I like to have a simple idea and see where it takes me, responding to how other people are responding, if I’ve got an audience. I really like working from nothing, starting with an empty screen, just typing and seeing what happens.
As someone who can just about master CTRL + ALT + DEL, this both fascinates and terrifies me. How exactly do you go about creating music from algorithms?
I went back to university to work out what algorithmic music means to me. I became a researcher at Goldsmiths in the computer department, which is a creative technology kind of place.
To me, it’s all about pattern. Broadly defined as something where you have a system for making something. It’s like having an extra step. So usually making music you push buttons – i.e. on a piano – and get an immediate result. But with algorithmic music you press lots of buttons to make lots of sounds. That’s the trade off – you lose that immediacy but you work on a higher level, where you’re doing lots of things to make lots of things. And that thing in between is really language. You’re describing structures to a computer which then turns those structures into music over time.
Cool. Yes. I understand. Please continue.
So pattern for me is about describing things as a logical structure. One kind would be repetition. But it’s also about symmetry, things being reversed or turned upside down. And also rotation: music is often cyclic, going forwards and backwards, rotating.
I really enjoy working with choreographers with patterns in dance. It’s the same kind of idea.
A really interesting one for me is an interference pattern – when you lay one piece of netting on top of each other. Something quite simple and another simple thing and you find a way of putting them together and you get something new.
So – patterns. I think?
I guess I’m talking in metaphor. But ‘pattern’ is a universal concept – like netting in textiles, with different textures you can overlay. But in music you get something similar – like an arpeggio would be a kind of interference pattern. You have one simple melody and then you have a way of moving between them and you put them together. Another kind is when you deviate from something – where you repeat something but then have unexpected glitches, which is something you also have in textiles.
I’m jumping between these different patterns – when you’re a computing person you tend to think in these abstract terms all the time. You’re always looking for structure behind things – and the privilege of doing that is you can then apply that thinking to lots of different domains. I really enjoy working with choreographers with patterns in dance. It’s the same kind of idea.
So that’s lots of confusing ideas! But for me it’s really about pattern. Almost all music has patterns – but with algorithmic music we’re really focused on those patterns and working with them at a structural level. So you’re further away from the sound – at least the way I work – but you’re closer to the underlying pattern and language.
The way you talk visually about structures reminds me of the way architects talk about buildings and space. Would you say there’s a bit of an overlap in ideas?
Yes, architecture’s about patterns as well. Christopher Alexander talks about patterns in architecture – which has been a big influence in computing, interestingly enough. There’s architecture inside a computer, it’s just made out of language instead of girders and things.
And speaking of patterns in textiles – what’s this miniature loom on your desk?
Ah – I made this myself. This is an ancient pattern based on the design of a loom that’s thousands of years old. It’s made on a laser cutter and augmented with electronics – but actually the fundamental design, hanging threads on weights, is ancient technology. It’s kind of computational – it’s the same kind of language really. I’m trying to teach myself how to weave by programming.
Of course. Extra blankets for winter?
It’s part of a project I’m involved with in Munich – the Penelope project. I’ve made a programming language where I can explore the interference patterns with textiles using these actuators that I can control with code.
Interesting – named after the legendary weaver of ancient Homeric epic, Penelope, of course. [Strokes chin wisely].
Yes – it’s a project exploring the overlap between ancient patterns – i.e. weaving – and the modern computational expression found in algorithms. This is also the basis for Algomech festival, which I run in Sheffield.
The Algomech festival? Tell our readers more.
Algomech is a festival dedicated to finding commonalities between mechanical and algorithmic approaches in art.
If there’s a new instrument made the point isn’t to replace all other instruments.
Everything’s about abstract systems, but using mechanical as well as algorithmic approaches. Trying to ground things. A good example is Graham Dunning who does this mechanical techno thing where he starts off with a turntable and gradually adds things on top which are triggering things. Like a robot but a turntable.
Cool – is there one in 2020?
Yes, it will be in November this year. Provisionally the 13th–15th, but keep an eye on the website.
So back to Algorave. Is this the dance music of the future?
Algorave has become quite well known and pushed the dance thing. I think that’s because previously computer music was sort of an academic thing, about sitting very quietly in a concert hall with lots of speakers and sounds rushing around. So we really pushed this dance music aspect.
Sometimes you see this narrative in Wired magazine and so on – is this the future of electronic music? Which isn’t the point. If there’s a new instrument made the point isn’t to replace all other instruments.
It’s one part. But we’re doing it as part of events where people are doing other things, and that’s fine – it’s not a competition.
Follow Alex on Twitter @yaxu. To find out more about Algorave head to: https://algorave.com
Find out more about the Penelope Project (A Study of Weaving As A Technical Mode of Existence) here: https://penelope.hypotheses.org
Illustrations: Alex Brown