Jack Farthing and Joe Knight headed to DINA, Sheffield to see what happens when you combine live-coding with electronic music
It’s hard to pick out exactly what you are hearing, there is a haphazard array of electronic effects perforated with deep, cutting bassline and relentless drum patterns that fill the room with an extremely aggressive sound. A core group of hard-core ‘Algoravers’ stand near the front, moving their bodies in an equally random sense, totally captivated by the onslaught of futuristic, alien sound. Some smaller groups are stood around the bar, chatting with a beer in their hand and surveying the chaotic scene before them. In a corner there is a group of young people, sat tucking into some delicious smelling Asian cuisine. It seemed everything was slightly out of sync, with so many different types of people all taking in the same utterly bizarre but engrossing spectacle.
We wander into the second room and you are suddenly met by a welcoming, ethereal hum and a sort of home-made amphitheatre where people sat in total silence, enchanted by the ambient visuals and sounds. It feels like a sorbet for your senses after the frantic, abrasive dubs blasting in the first room. It was like passing through a wormhole, the two rooms could not be further apart in every sense. Yet there is something fascinating about the disorder. The juxtaposing sounds and kaleidoscopic visuals made you feel like you were tripping some serious balls. This, it seems, is just another typical night at the Algorave.
An Algorave is the marriage of live coding and music, where programmers generate music using algorithms. It feels like you are watching a DJ perform, whereas in reality Algorave musicians are improvisers. They create music live by writing or modifying code as opposed to mixing pre-recorded music.
Alex Mclean – a co-founder of Algorave as one of two people credited with coining the name – is a live-coding don who has created TidalCycles, a live-coding environment allowing coding musicians to code simply and quickly.
“What we are doing is taking algorithms and describing music as code, I like to think about it in terms of patterns, like knitting” Alex says.
“You follow a procedure that’s written down, it might include knits and pearls – which are the different stitches – or repetitions like ‘do this bit so many times’ and conditional bits where you follow this bit of code in order to make an arm that’s a certain size or something”
“This idea of repetition and conditional statements, that’s the core of what an algorithm means. We are doing something like knitting, but instead of using our hands to knit with, we are typing bits of code that describe music” he continued.
If this music was a knitted jumper, it would look like Elmer the Elephant on speed. It seems the usual rules that govern what a certain genre can or cannot sound like are totally missing at Algoraves. Some musicians elect to knit together and unknit sounds at random at a breath-taking pace whilst others operate more calmly and with gentle variation. The combinations and variations are endless; it feels like music with the safety off.
Algorithmic music began in the 1970’s when Brian Eno established randomised musical practices that eventually influenced rave culture. Algorithmic music was then used as a response to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which attempted to shut down raves by outlawing “repetitive beats”, algorithmic music centres around making “non-repetitive beats”, a direct corruption of the definition of rave music.
Digital algorithmic coding featured in drum and bass influenced electronic music in the 1990’s and after the first Algorave was held in London in 2012 and has now spread globally, with people shaking it to live-coding from Europe to Australia.
“It’s an international community but it feels like there is a few people in each city and we just kind of link up online” Alex said.
“There’s all these different aspects of the community that come together and form this nice whole scene” he continued.
“This is one of the most diverse line-ups I have ever played on, which is surprising. I thought it would be heavily male because of the tech focus” Algorave performer Deerful told me.
“I usually play on the Indie circuit supporting guitar bands and I’m usually the only girl. Whereas here it’s fine, I’m just like everybody else except I’m not as good at coding”
On the surface, some may argue that Algoraves are just a random collection of abrasive sounds that can be quite disconcerting. When you dig a little deeper you actually find a diverse community of music lovers that just want to do things a little differently. Algoraves accept anyone, whether you want to dance around like a loon (to what can only be described as the sound of 1000 computers simultaneously crashing) or zone out to some jazz trumpet, layered over alien melodies as shifting squares dance across the walls. You can perform whether you’ve been live-coding for years or weeks, and the end product is different every time.
It’s somewhere between geek culture, a rave and an art exhibition. And you know what? It’s absolutely brilliant.
There’s a method to this madness.