Renick Bell is standing in front of his computer at a small table in the middle of the dance floor. The stoic, bespectacled musician types quickly and efficiently, his eyes locked to his computer screen. Around him in a wide circle, the crowd bobs to his music. Sputtering tom rolls, blobby techno synths, and crystalline cymbal taps blossom and spill out of the theater's massive surround-sound system. All the lights are off, and the only illumination in the big room is the glow of Bell's monitor, the soft red LED backlight on his mechanical gaming keyboard, and a live view of his PC monitor projected on a wall-sized screen.
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Nearly every one of the hundred or so people in the room, myself included, is staring intently at the action playing out on the screen. But what's being projected is not some psychedelic animation, alien landscape, or whatever other visuals you'd expect to see at an electronic music gig. What we're watching is code. Lines and lines of it, filling up the black screen in a white monospace font.
We look on as Bell's keystrokes call up a bank of sounds called atmo stab2, then another called ensOsakaArpAtmo14. Lovely synthesizer arpeggios start percolating in the mix. They're untethered, a bit off-kilter. The effect is pleasing but edgy, like a warm wind that's blowing a bit too hard. The snare drum sounds skitter around in the higher registers, but there isn't much happening in the low end. Bell decides to fill in some of that space. He loads kitBleepFtech and gives it the command, highGlobalDensity. A rush of kick drums bombards the speaker stacks, drowning the room in gigantic waves of jaw-rattling bass. The video projector starts vibrating violently from the onslaught, and the code on the screen melts into a smeary pink blur. The crowd whoops. Bell types out a message to the attendees, flooding the screen with one repeated line of text: The old patterns are dead.
"Live coding" parties such as this—where revelers show up as much for the if-thens and variables as the beer and snacks—are a recent phenomenon in underground electronic music culture. And here in the Bay Area, where the Venn diagram of the Silicon Valley and DJ scenes finds its overlap, shows like Bell's are right at home. Yet they're not just more of the tech-meets-techno same. Whereas a traditional EDM show might feature a performer cueing up sounds or samples on a laptop, DJs at live coding shows use computers to play music in a wholly different way, and to make all new sounds.
The code on display is used to control software algorithms. The musician synthesizes individual noises (snare hits, bass blobs) on their computer, then instructs the software to string those instrument sounds together based on a set of predefined rules. What comes out bears the fingerprint of the artist, but is shaped entirely by the algorithms. Run the same routine a second time, and the song will sound familiar and contain all the same elements, but the composition will have a different structure. This is the apotheosis of electronic creation; half human, half machine. The events that have sprung up to celebrate this form of generative composition have already been given a delightful portmanteau: algoraves.
Renick Bell's performance was part of Algorithmic Art Assembly, a recent two-day festival in San Francisco dedicated to algorithmic music and art. The afternoons were filled with talks and demonstrations; the nights were filled with music.
Some of the talks were heavy on mathematics and computer science—music code on the screen is one thing, but Euclidean formulas are something else—but all of them were informative. Adam Florin, creator of the algorithmic audio plug-in Patter, traced the history of generative music from the middle ages, through John Cage and Iannis Xenakis in the mid-20th century, up to the software-dominated present. Musician Jules Litman-Cleper outlined the parallels between the patterns we see in nature and the patterns exhibited by computer systems. Producer Mark Fell, who along with artists like Oval released some pioneering algorithmic dance music in the 1990s, was brought on stage for a Q&A session.
Given the hacker-friendly nature of the algorave art form, home-built systems are common. Almost everyone uses some combination of open-source synthesis engines, compiled code, and downloaded libraries.
The visual arts were represented as well. Programmer Olivia Jack demonstrated Hydra, her live-coding system that generates trippy visuals in a web browser. Artist Chelly Sherman set up a demo of her VR "kinetic sound sculpture" Dispersion that played on a loop in the lobby. There was even an exercise for rules-based creation in the analog realm, as the artist Windy Chien handed out short pieces of rope and taught attendees how to tie a complex knot.
At night, the seats were cleared out, the bar was stocked, and the algorave got underway. Some of the musicians performed with iOS apps and traditional gear like laptops and USB-powered controllers. Others, like Kindohm, DVO, Kit Clayton, and Algobabez performed using rules-based software systems like Max/MSP, SuperCollider, and TidalCycles. Given the hacker-friendly nature of the algorave art form, home-built systems are common. Almost everyone uses some combination of open-source synthesis engines, compiled code, and downloaded libraries. MacBook Pros abound, but some artists run customized hardware. Bell uses an Intel NUC mini PC loaded with Linux and a music program of his own creation called Conductive.
The music itself has a common aesthetic, a kind of shared language. Much of it leans toward the chaotic and aggressive style of electronica popularized by the Sheffield, UK band Autechre, but artists veer in other directions too. Go to an algorave and you'll hear ambient sets, dub explorations, and even some straightforward dance music. Just, you know, with live code projected onto the screen.
The Space Is the Place
The venue for the conference, Gray Area, has emerged over the last five years as a hub for the tech-minded art and music community in San Francisco. It's situated inside a renovated Mission District movie theater which, in the decade before the current tech boom, had fallen into disrepair and was long occupied by a schlubby dollar store. Now, just in time to catch a boost from the Silicon Valley cash flooding the city, the Gray Area operators have transformed the old Grand into a comfortable and hip meeting place. In recent years, Gray Area has hosted everything from coding workshops and DIY seminars to quadraphonic synthesizer performances . During the two days of AAA, attendees (many of them Bay Area startup workers) filled the main hall and milled about the grounds, either on the couches in the lobby or on the sun-warmed benches out front. Apps were name-checked and SoundCloud links were exchanged over single-origin coffees and vape cartridges. It felt like a real happening, a gathering of a well-defined community.
The event was put together by Scottish musician and programmer Thorsten Sideb0ard, who first participated in algoraves in Sheffield and London. He came back to his adopted home of San Francisco and started putting together a bill of live-coding artists, and things bloomed from there.
"I figured if I'm already doing an algorave, I should just make it a whole weekend festival," he says. He started booking the artists he had met at the UK algoraves, and they passed along more names. The lineup filled quickly. "I got kind of carried away with it. It's like I get to assemble my own private concert of stuff I want to see, and everyone else gets to come along for the ride."
And though the very first Algorithmic Art Assembly has wrapped, Sideb0ard says there will definitely be another one next year. "I've got a couple of people who want to play already. It's been so much fun, I just have to do it again."
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(If you're someone who experiences frisson , that spine-tingling, hair-raising reaction to music, you know what I'm talking about.) We also talked to researchers who have studied how learning to play music can help kids become better problem-solvers, and to author Dan Levitin, who helped break down how the entire brain gets involved when you hear music.