Algorave lies at the intersection of electronic music and geek culture
A small group of coders are reinventing the live music performance scene by putting computer code at the centre of the creative process
In May, 150-odd musicians, coders and curious onlookers gathered in the white cube of south Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan, which had been transformed to look like a cross between a nightclub and a hackerspace. A number of tables were spread across the room, piled high with laptops, cables and assorted technical sundries. Apart from a handful of standing fluorescent tubes, the only lighting came from computer screens and a projector aimed at the wall. A short-haired young woman wearing neon shades typed away at her keyboard, triggering loops of serrated percussion that reverberated across the room. On the wall, the projector displayed a black screen with scrolling lines of computer code being written, edited and manipulated on the fly as the music morphed in tandem.
The woman behind the laptop was Mumbai-based artist and film-maker Dhanya Pilo (performing as decoy + +), and the event, Fat Finger Mayhem, was India’s first algorave.
Algorave, short for algorithmic rave, is a performance format and underground movement that revolves around the practice of live-coding, that is, writing and editing code live in front of an audience to create music and visuals. Emerging out of the demo scene of the 1980s and 1990s—where people would swap demos of graphics and music software—live coding has been a medium for performing arts for almost three decades, but it was usually restricted to either the art world or tech and trans-media events. Then, in 2012, Sheffield-based musicians Alex McLean and Nick Collins decided to take live coding into the club environment, organizing live coding jams at local music venues under the algorave banner.
Since then, algorave has grown into a decentralized global movement, with small but interconnected communities of musicians and technology geeks spread across Europe, North and South America and Asia. Usually catering to dance audiences, the sounds that algorave artists dabble in range from techno and glitch to hip hop and even straightforward pop music. What unites them is a deconstructionist DIY approach to music production using open-source coding environments, and a commitment to display your code live, to “show your work" as it were.
DOING THE MATH
Over the past decade, India has also seen a number of artists dabble in creative coding and live coding as part of their practice, such as sound artist and researcher Akash Sharma (Sound.Codes) and noise music practitioner Hemant Sreekumar. But it was only last year that Pilo and multi-disciplinary creative technologist Abhinay Khoparzi came together to form Algorave India and put together India’s first proper algorave event.
“I had seen similar code-based performances at trans-media festivals in Europe, and I kept thinking that why aren’t we getting sound artists to do this stuff in India," says Pilo, over Skype from Sri Lanka. “So when the Goethe-Institut approached me to see if I would like to curate and put together an event for Open Codes (an exhibition that looked at coding as a new tool to create culture), I started tracking down other people who were interested in live coding."
The first person to come on board was Khoparzi (who performs as Khoparzi), an old associate who had been turned on to algorave after attending one of McLean’s events in London in 2013. He had already been experimenting with algorithm-based music in Mumbai. Around the turn of the decade, the Third Thought Collective—consisting of him, Shazeb Shaikh and Siddharth Bhatia, curator and artist respectively—would organize small experimental music events where they would play around with glitched, cut-up and otherwise manipulated songs by other artists. “I had also done live coding at technical conferences, where you would show how a particular piece of software was put together," he says. “But I didn’t know it was possible to do it in a gig environment."
The two began reaching out to friends and associates in the experimental music space, looking for artists who were similarly inclined. The result was a 3-hour open jam with seven artists, including the two of them as well as RAIA, tig3rbabu, KarGo Pluggy, Tejaswi and Sound.Codes, preceded by a 4-hour workshop that introduced participants to the basics of live-coding environments Gibber, Sonic Pi and TidalCycles. They had expected a handful of largely curious people at the workshop. Instead, says Pilo, 140 people turned up, ranging in age from 11-56. Since then, they have conducted two small workshops in Goa and Delhi, returning for another workshop and performance at Max Mueller Bhavan during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai this February.
“We had almost 3,000 people walking in and out during the evening performance (at the February event)," says Pilo. “We also had some devices there for people to just come jam, and see what happens when they interfere. It was amazing."
CODE OF CONDUCT
It’s no surprise that live coding attracts tinkerers and technologists, driven as it is by the impulse to deconstruct and demystify the back-end processes of music production. On live-coding platforms, the graphical user interfaces of commercial music production software are stripped away to reveal the mathematical logic that governs music. It is, in a way, the digital equivalent of the increasingly popular modular synthesis scene. Both algoravers and synth-heads like to dig into the guts of their machines to make music from scratch, one by manipulating live code and the other by wiring and rewiring circuits together.
“It allows for much more complex musical structures, using math to solve your musical problems on the fly," says Khoparzi, adding that live coding allows you to bypass the lag between action and reaction imposed by traditional music interfaces. “You’ve got the algorithm running in your head, and you can transfer it immediately to your computer. And the fact that we get to understand each and every part of the code means we can customize it exactly how we would like it to behave."
While some artists come into performances with prepared compositions, others like to start with a simple element—a beat, or maybe just a kickdrum—and build the track from there. This improvisational approach allows for a lot more creative experimentation, and has the added thrill of knowing that you’re always on the verge of having your music collapse into total chaos.
“We embrace the possibility of chaos," says Khoparzi. “But the kind of audiences we are looking for are also more forgiving, because the idea itself is bigger than whatever mess-ups can happen."
But whatever approach they prefer, algoravers tend to think of live coding as much more than just another tool to make music. It represents a different way of looking at music production and culture, one that is open, collaborative and inclusive, taking cues from the open source software community it came from. The most obvious manifestation of this is the imperative to display and share your code.
“The code acts almost like sheet music in that it’s executable," says Joshua Thomas (Tig3rbabu), a musician who currently helps produce podcasts for The Indian Express using the Sonic Pi live-coding environment. “So if you like a bassline from someone’s piece, you can just copy-paste that code and you have that bassline. It just makes it transferable and easy to understand."
But this spirit extends beyond just the code. Since this isn’t consumer software produced by big corporations with customer service departments, learning and troubleshooting is usually done through online interactive communities on platforms like GitHub and in_thread. Artists regularly collaborate on both music and software development. Both the Indian and international algorave scenes also tend to emphasize diversity and inclusivity, with a number of prominent artists being women or non-binary. While commercial music scenes operate on the model of competition between individuals, algorave leans towards the idea of being a collaborative community.
“I think live coding is the next iteration of a band," says Becky Fernandes (RAIA), who uses live coding to produce more traditionally pop-leaning music. She mentions a live-stream Khoparzi recently participated in with artists from four continents playing together by sending their code to a common server. “And at the most recent algorave, Sound.Codes used sensors to pick up what his interpretive dancers were doing and that was producing sound. Based on how he was manipulating his code, their movements would be interpreted differently. It’s just the next step in how we make music."
With a couple of successful events under its belt, Algorave India is now looking to expand its presence and bring others into the fold by conducting workshops and performances all across the city. Its Facebook group has close to 200 members, but Pilo and Khoparzi believe the scene has the potential to grow much bigger, thanks to the fact that live coding makes music production accessible to a lot of people who may not have musical training or be able to afford an instrument.
“India has so many IT students who work with pure code," says Pilo, who wants to take the workshops to college festivals across the country. “Imagine giving them all workshops and a little input into jamming using code, and then they have an extra thing to play with and a way to express themselves."
Algoraver starter pack
If you are curious and want to experiment with live coding, this list of essential resources can get you started
Originally designed to help school- children learn music and computer programming, Sonic Pi is a simple, easy-to-use live-coding environment that’s perfect for beginners. There are a number of online tutorials to help you get started, but we recommend Mehackit’s comprehensive lesson plan, available at Sonic-pi. mehackit.org.
This live-coding environment was designed specifically for algoravers by Alex McLean himself. Inspired by McLean’s research on musical time in Indian classical music, TidalCycles allows the user to create and manipulate musical patterns, making it a particularly good fit for producers interested in making music based on repetitive rhythms. It’s available for free download at Tidalcycles.org.
If visuals are more your thing, check out Hydra, a browser-based platform for live-coding visuals which converts your browser windows into a modular and distributed video synthesizer. Developed by Colombia-based artist Olivia Jack, Hydra is inspired by both analogue synthesizers and the emergence of peer-to-peer technology. You can give Hydra a spin at Hydra-editor.glitch.me.