Dec 2011

Article: Thought and Performance, Live Coding Music, Explained to Anyone


I bookmarked this article on createdigitalmusic.com a while ago (it's from Jul 2010) and ran into it again today.. "Thought and Performance, Live Coding Music, Explained to Anyone – Really" by Peter Kirn contains several simple but thought provoking ideas about livecoding and its relevance in the (traditional) music world.

Is livecoding an elitarian activity?

Secrets such as why the programming language Lisp inspires religious devotion, or how someone in their right mind would ever consider programming onstage as a form of musical performance, represent the sort of geekery that would seem to be the domain of an elite.

Commenting on Ramsay's video (Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools):

I doubt very seriously that live coding is the right performance medium for all computer musicians. [..] But Ramsay reveals what live coding music is. It’s compositional improvisation, and code simply lays bare the workings of the compositional mind as that process unfolds. Not everyone will understand the precise meaning of what they see, but there’s an intuitive intimacy to the odd sight of watching someone type code. It’s honest; there’s no curtain between you and the wizard.

An interesting comment from a reader puts forward what I'd call the 'livecoding as a programming-virtuosism view:

The live coding thing is clearly an amazing talent. I admire anyone who can do that, but it does seem pretty much a sophisticated parlor trick unless the music resulting can stand on its own. The question becomes, were you to hear the piece without observing the live coding performance, would it stand up, or is the quality of the piece augmented by the way in which it was composed? Is a decent painting painted by someone who paints blindfolded something I would rather see than an excellent painting by someone who paints in a conventional fashion? Cause unless the live coder can spin something up that I would enjoy listening to on my portable media player, I feel like music takes a back seat to the musician, which is a truly peculiar something. […] This is not to say live coding is something to be ignored, but where from ever in history have we asked this question? Does the musician matter more than the music?

And another, even more critical comment:

It is not about letting the audience in at all. It's about cultivating an stage presence of virtuosic technical wizardry. No one in the audience understands the code and that's why everyone marvels at the "magic". Worse still it's Lisp, a particularly archaic and obfuscated computer language.

So what?

I think this is all very useful to read, as it shows what non-specialists may think of livecoding. I've been asking myself similar questions a lot of times, but never really reached a clear conclusion. Is livecoding a music making activity, or is it just programming wizardry?

I personally got into livecoding as a musician, first, and only afterwards as a programmer. As a result I tend to see it as some sort of advanced music-making tool. However, interestingly enough, in order to make that tool match my music taste and composition style I had to become an expert at programming the livecoding environment. While doing that, I sort of lost the closure to the 'instrument', which is something you'd have all the time if you play a piano or a guitar. With no closure, you end up in the role of 'music programmer', worrying about mathematical structures and time recursions rather than notes and feelings.

It's a cyclical process, actually. You gain competency with some programming pattern that lets you express your musical ideas quickly and efficiently. Then you think of different ideas, but you can't put them into code easily, so you've got to step back, abandon the musical dimension temporarily, and hack some new programming structures. Which makes me think: maybe that's what's so cool about it. Livecoding environments are malleable meta-instruments that let you create (software) music instruments.

So the music - the end result - is definitely part of it. But the process, the how in the music creation business is also what we have in focus here. In fact this process is also eminently creative (and here lies the difference with many other digital music 'creation' tools) and, maybe most importantly, this process is so abstracted and codified that it feels as if it represented some sort of essence of creativity.

Cite this blog post:


Michele Pasin. Article: Thought and Performance, Live Coding Music, Explained to Anyone. Blog post on www.michelepasin.org. Published on Dec. 26, 2011.

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