By Carter Potts
In an ensemble, each individual often has their own role in performance. For example, in a pop band, there is often a vocalist, guitarist, bassist, and drummer. In this type of ensemble, the most common roles, respectively, are to carry the melody, provide harmonic support, drive the rhythm, and hold the ensemble together and on time. However, in less traditional ensembles these roles aren’t as clearly defined. I have come to learn this as a member of the ICE Ensemble.
My first semester as a member of the ensemble was also the first semester that the ensemble partook in live coding. At first, I was skeptical of the ability for live coding to be recognized as a legitimate means of musical expression. As I continued with the ensemble, however, I recognized that live coding couldn’t necessarily be performed like traditional music. By that I mean that there are limits to live coding, and that these limits are integral to the live coding experience.
Live coding often limits itself to just a few short musical ideas, with these motifs being looped infinitely until terminated by the performer. The interest in live coding thus derives from the performer’s ability to manipulate the repeating musical material in new ways. It also allows the performer the ability to layer new ideas on top of old ones, while also transitioning this old and new material seamlessly. This may sound like a lot to focus on at one time, and it is. This is where the ensemble becomes an invaluable tool in live coding performance.
As already stated, ICE Ensemble’s live coding era was only a semester young at this point, so there was much development for the group to undergo. Every ensemble member started with no experience in live coding and no knowledge of the coding language that we used. As a result, everyone entered the ensemble at the same level. As the group grew in experience, and therefore knowledge, each individual began to recognize their own strengths, and discover their favourite sounds and preferred coding functions. This improved the group’s improv performance, as everyone fell into a role where they were most comfortable.
These roles became most evident in the improv game the ensemble played, called “On the Clock”. In this game, the entire ensemble takes turns editing the same
block of code. Each individual is given 30 seconds to listen to the current state of the piece, and then edit the code before the timer goes off. This quick thinking game compels each performer to play to their strongest qualities. For example, some performers choose to implement an additional voice to the code in order to richen the texture. Other performers may choose to make quick, yet impactful changes to pre-existing code that may, for instance, increase the rhythmic motion by adding more samples to the loop, or change the texture by changing the sound bank used for a voice. These different styles of performance allow for the piece to remain interesting by constantly altering all of the different musical qualities that are present in the performance.
The ICE ensemble has shown substantial growth through its first semester of live coding by displaying the different roles ensemble members have taken within the group. Each member limited themselves within the group in an effort to produce a cohesive performance. As a result, the ensemble members independently found their own roles within live coding performance, much like a more traditional ensemble would already have in place.