Group Collaboration, Improvisation and Life, while Live Coding

By Jordan Berg

Last semester was my first experience with live coding and one of my most profound conclusions at the time was that ‘going with the flow’ when live coding produced music that I felt was more successful than when I had tried to strictly compose material beforehand. This semester I found the same approach created more successful collaborations when improvising with the group. If I let my feelings, ideas and previously chosen sounds dominate my thinking, I ended up fighting with the unpredictability of the other sounds and choices that were made by the other performers. If I held nothing sacred in my choices and ideas I had made beforehand, remained very open minded with the direction and sounds made by the other players, I found that the overall experience was more enjoyable and always resulted in music that was original and interesting.

Timbre or sound choice is one of the biggest potential issues when improvising with others in a live coding environment. When improvising with non-electronic instrumentalists it is easier to know in advance how the sound from your colleagues will blend with your own instrument/sound. When live coding, the sounds that other members of your group make can be totally unpredictable. It could be the sound of an acoustic instrument, a voice, an electronic noise, animal sound or really anything else one can think of (and beyond). When you are accustomed to traditional composition or improvisation this can be frustrating at first because your ideas for the piece and what you have composed in advance might not pair successfully with the vision and sounds of the other members. Another potentially frustrating part of live coding with a group is that you might completely disagree initially that the sounds that your colleagues make are suitable for the particular performance. One player might be taking a more serious approach, for example playing a percussive rhythm, a melody with a recognizable instrument, or a subtle sonic atmosphere, while another player might take a comedic approach (this often happens). What I found to be a surprising result of having an open mind is that when the group engaged in a discussion about our choices, sometimes it seemed that everyone else unanimously enjoyed something I thought wasn’t working. I was happy that I had kept an open mind because it made me realize that maybe the only reason that I felt that something didn’t fit was perhaps that it simply didn’t work with my idea. Maybe my idea didn’t really work in the first place. It also made me think that when I sometimes felt displeased with an abrasive sound played loudly and/or repetitively maybe others sometimes felt that same way about a sound that I was proud of. I discovered that I should definitely communicate my opinions, but that I should remain very open minded, play my sounds in a way that blend in with the others and not carry overtop all the time, and then change things up from time to time because no matter how much I loved what I had done, it would become tiring to others inevitably. Even with the seriousness vs. comedic dichotomy and the fact that there might be sounds in the mix you don’t fully appreciate, I find that live coding is very forgiving if you let it be. If you hold things you’ve come up with as too precious and you allow your idea for the piece to dominate your thinking, you will end up conflicting with other performers’ elements and feeling frustrated. If you communicate with others in a constructive and positive way and you let things fall as they may without getting precious about anything in particular and allowing for strangeness that you may not love initially, the music that results ends up sounding good even if it does have strange, surreal, or out of place sounds. I feel that communication is very necessary because you can discuss the vision for the piece and talk about strategies. It is also necessary to openly discuss relative volumes/levels because often a player doesn’t realize how their sound or performance is dominating due to their focus on it. I found the experience overall to be rewarding and will be of value every time I perform with another musician whether live coding or otherwise.


Author: dndrew

Orchestral, chamber and interactive music composer Digital musical instrumentalist Real-time software systems designer Computer music educator

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