Page last updated at 00:18 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 01:18 UK

Tech Know: Programming, meet music

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News


Ellie Gibson finds out how tuneful computer code like 1-0-1-0-0-0-1-1-1-1 can sound when translated into music?

It might just be the most conceptually complex way of making music that modern man has yet devised.

But that is the challenge of live coding - the process of writing computer code, in real time, to compose and play music or design animations.

"It's not just a passive process, not just someone creating sounds, which is the problem with electronic music - because people don't really see what it is that the musicians are doing," says Dave Griffiths.

Dave is a live coder and a performer in a night of live coding held in a south London pub, organised by the collective Toplap.

"Live coding brings the audience closer; they can see that you're making something in front of them," he says.

The furious coding is also projected onto a screen for the audience, making the programming as much - or more - of the performance as the music it codes for.

Bug bare

Live coding eschews the normal route of developing computer code, which starts with writing a program in a "high-level" language - one that looks not too far removed from English.

Then, the programmer compiles it, meaning it is converted by another program into a language not too far removed from the 1s and 0s of computing.

Live coding screenshot
The purist's version of live coding starts with a blank screen

Then they run it. If anything it should go wrong - and anyone who has ever done any programming will know how frequent this is - they get nothing out.

A crash. Epic fail.

Because the software that live coders use is designed for a compile-free, real-time use, the performers face this prospect much less often.

But it does happen, Dave tells me. "That's what keeps it exciting," he says.

A crash means a deadly uncomfortable silence in front of an expectant audience, which on the night includes quite a few people who have simply stumbled upstairs into the pub's function room to see what live coding is.

Jamming frequency

Up first is Chris McCormick, whose performance is a world premiere.

Live coding has its own, custom-made programming languages, some of which are as simple as a 1970s computer interface, with lines of code entered onto a black screen.

Others might be more visual, with musical directions encoded as shapes that are arranged freehand on a screen.

"It might not be any easier to understand but it's visually more interesting than just text," Dave says.

Live coding screenshot
Some software packages for live coding are more visual than others

"But then there's also something nice about the purity of just having lines of code."

Chris is a fan of the more visual software, but he follows the live coding purist's tradition of starting off with a blank screen.

As he adds shapes corresponding to sounds, filling them in with numbers that finely tune their timbre or frequency, his stage fright is not in evidence.

He says that live coding is like building the computer programs that are commonly used to make electronic music; it is "one more level of abstraction" from the music itself.

"Making boring techno music is really easy with modern tools," he says, "but with live coding, boring techno is much harder."

As if to prove the point, the performances after Chris's held no full-fledged, boring techno.

Dave and his collaborator Alex McLean perform a live-coding duet, each of them running independent programs.

They listen to each other's output and work separately but together in a way that is conceptually not so different from two saxophonists "trading fours".


Matthew Yee-King and his co-performer Click Nilson have opted to stray from standard live coding this evening, instead performing their "algorithmic choreography".

Instead of code entered on the screen resulting in sound, it results in Click performing dance moves. It's less high-tech and more conceptual performance art.

But they share the others' passion about what it is that live coding taps into.

Live coding pub scene
Live coders can "jam" together as with traditional instruments

"I've done all sorts of things with a computer and a stage, but [live coding] feels like it's really native to computing," says Matthew.

"It's like a virtuosic exploration of the guts of the machine, in the same way that a piano virtuoso engages with the machine they're using.

"You're deeply engaging with the machine in a way that you don't if you're using someone's ready-made software."

And this seems to be the point; no one has come expecting to make or to hear heroically composed, massively melodic and moving music.

It's more an exposition of what can be done starting from absolutely nothing with a novel, stripped-down set of sonic tools.

Dave sums it up: "It's such a new thing, and we don't know if we're any good at it - it may well be that a new generation comes along and just blows us away".

The group is looking into doing a tour of sorts by playing in planetariums across the country, with the first in September at Plymouth Planetarium.

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