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.

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Spontaneity and Delayed Response in Performance: Live Coding and Live Gameplay

By Matthew B. Pohl

Improvisatory performance has long been part of musical interpretation since the days of fugue and counterpoint, with virtuosic musicians such as Mozart and Beethoven serving as the earliest such examples in the Western art tradition. The twelve-bar blues progression and its number of variants serve as a more popular form of music containing improvisational language and techniques. Both of these examples follow the traditional idea of interacting directly with a sound source, using a number of control mechanisms – force, speed, intonation, subtlety – to invoke a desired sound from an instrument.

For example, if a drummer wanted the kick drum to make sound, they would force their foot into the pedal, which results in the kick drum being struck by a mallet with the help of some mechanics to transfer the force of motion. This somewhat complex process can normally take place in less than a quarter of a second. In the case of the ICE Ensemble and its live coding dynamic, the process changes and so do the variables: to produce a kick drum sound, one must effectively and efficiently type the name of the low-level sound location, its selection number, a gain value, and a pan value, in syntax, within an IDE containing TidalCycles. For a proficient coder/typist, this process can take anywhere from ten to thirty seconds, a far cry from the near instantaneous motion of interacting with a kick drum pedal.

The ICE Ensemble explored a very interesting perspective on performance this semester: live coding for video games. There is an exceptional range of spontaneity involved in video games, as the player alone is in control of the flow of the game and, in the case of live music creation for the game, the flow of the performance. The challenge was to explore limits when live coding for games, and what we can do to overcome this.

The first challenge is, with modern technology, exceptionally simple: overcoming the delay from slow typist speeds with copy/paste. To implement complex lines of code quickly, scenes used in performance would have to be developed and practiced beforehand by musicians and gaming performers in tandem. This cuts down on both the delayed response, but since the gamer also has practice beforehand it also cuts down on the spontaneity of live gameplay.

The second challenge becomes how one incorporates live coding into gameplay without removing its spontaneity – or at the very least the sense of spontaneity. This challenge is much more difficult to answer, partially because any observation of an audience’s perception of spontaneity would have resided in the final concert that was cancelled due to extraneous circumstances. However, one should reflect on the core idea that an interpretation of music and its related elements will vary from person to person, and that a non-performer will likely maintain a different perception than a performer concerning what is spontaneous, what is planned, and what is rehearsed.

Leading up to the final concert, one of the practicing gamers commented a number of times that her perception of the in-game music changed while practicing with the ensemble, and that it was more enveloping and interactive to have it created while the game was being played by the individual as opposed to being as a computer-interpreted result of that player’s actions, and that gaming at home after the practices “just isn’t the same”. Perhaps that would be the general consensus among an audience with similar backgrounds to this individual, while taking in such a unique subtype of music creation in an exceptionally unique way. Perhaps in this case, then, spontaneity is not about being unaware of what will happen, but about the anticipation of what could happen. Remember that first time you listened to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as a critical music listener?