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The Australians making music with computer code

ABC News logo ABC News 21/07/2019 By Tom Williams

Imagine building a synthesiser from scratch in front of an audience, and then playing it live.

Enter the world of live-coding, where musicians form new and interesting sounds by creating algorithms in real time. © ABC News Images Enter the world of live-coding, where musicians form new and interesting sounds by creating algorithms in real time. That's exactly what 24-year-old Melbourne musician Allison Walker does, but she does it with computer code.

"The audience gets to see all the guts and the wires spilling out everywhere, and it all just seems very incomprehensible," she said.

Ms Walker is describing an experimental style of music creation known as live-coding, which sees artists write and update computer code in real time in order to create sound.

As Ms Walker types away at her laptop, the audible results of her coding are blasted out of nearby speakers, all while that very same coding is projected on a screen behind her, for all to see.

As an audience member, it doesn't matter if you don't know what "(callback (*metro* (+ beat (* .95 (car ds)))) 'bassline (+ beat (car ds))" means, as long as it sounds good.

The 'wall of code'

Ms Walker is a video game sound designer and has only been live-coding since 2017, but she is already gripped by the technique's "inherently fun" take on algorithmic music creation.

"People don't usually see all the hard work that goes on in the background (during electronic music performance), but if they see this wall of code they're immediately like, 'Woah, that's cool!'

"It's more engaging for an audience to get into."

The Australian scene

Live-coding spawned from interactions between academia and the European electronic scene in the early noughties.

Artists like the American-born Renick Bell and UK act Lil Data have released live-coded albums, but the form has received little mainstream attention and remains a technique practised by very few Australians, most of whom are male academics.

Brisbane's Andrew Sorensen is a veteran of Australia's live-coding scene, and has been performing since 2005.

The 45-year-old — who holds a PhD in computer science and a Bachelor's Degree in jazz trumpet performance — has developed his own live-coding software languages, and is known for exploring a range of genres during his performances, including classical and jazz.

He was introduced to live-coding by an article written by Alex McLean, the British musician and academic who played a key role in creating live-coding and shaping the term "algorave" — an electronic music event which typically features algorithmic or live-coded music.

"There isn't much of an Australian live-coding scene, which is the slightly sad part of the story," Dr Sorensen admitted.

"It's much broader outside of Australia. Australia is still quite an academic community, but it's also true that Australia is just a very small live-coding community."

Allison Walker led a free live-coding workshop at Melbourne creative studio Signal in May this year, and she is optimistic that more non-academic musicians will try their hand at making music with code.

"Hopefully this workshop changes things. There were a lot of people really enamoured with it … I really hope there'll be an influx of people," she said.

"In a lot of other scenes around the world — particularly in Mexico and India — it's more of an underground thing for people who don't have access to a whole lot of resources. They can just get their laptops out, install these programs which are all free, and they can just start making wild music."

Canberra academic Ben Swift, 35, is a senior lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at ANU, and a longtime collaborator of Dr Sorenson's.

Mr Swift, who is planning to host an algorave at ANU later this year, is also hoping to see more non-academic musicians get into algorithmic music.

"What [algoraves] are really about is participation, getting underrepresented voices from the global community to get involved in making algorithmic music," he said.

Open to anyone

West Australian software developer Ethan Crawford, 37, started live-coding in 2015 and believes Australia's live-coding scene should be "open to anyone", regardless of their gender or education.

"I feel particularly strongly that it be important to ensure that any barriers to participating in the scene — perceived or otherwise — could be removed, because live-coding shouldn't be some exclusive club," he said.

Mr Crawford is currently the only Australian on the core development team of a live-coding program called Sonic Pi, which was first designed to teach children how to code.

Developed by Cambridge University researcher Sam Aaron (who calls Dr Sorenson an "inspiration"), Sonic Pi's core code is open source — meaning anyone can access and modify it — and Mr Crawford believes this can help make live-coding more accessible.

"Live-coding is similar to a text editor — which lots of people use every day; people use Microsoft Word to write things. In this case, Sonic Pi is just a text editor with some fancy features built on top," he said.

"So many of the interactions that you have with people and your environment are mediated through software, but it's all hidden," said Mr Swift.

"Live-coding forces somebody, even if only for a second, to engage with computer code — that's something most people probably never do, or maybe only one or two times in their life."

"The fact that the audience can see and engage with what's happening as this process that involves both the code and the sound, is very important," said Dr Sorensen.

"It's about this idea that code can be beautiful."

Pictures: UNESCO’s Cities of Music around the world

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