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Sounds Sans Spectacle: Listening In The Algorithmic Age

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

by Ciarán Daly

"Bats use sound to orient themselves in their environment to find their prey. People do that as well."

DOMMUNE Tokyo x Yorkshire (Source: Eulerroom)


We're drowning in sound. From the constant roar of machine along the roads and train tracks, to the perpetual chatter of our devices and voices. We never stop hearing. But what does it mean to really listen ?

That's the question at the heart of a new series of events across northeast London this autumn. Since the start of October, a number of innovative concerts and workshops have run every weekend in Waltham Forest focused solely on the act of enhanced listening. Everything from synth-making workshops to junk orchestras and underwater concerts are open to the public thanks to We're All Bats - an autumn sound programme curated by Joel Cahen of Newtoy, an 'experiential arts' organisation.

The thinking behind the name, explains Joel, is that bats use sound to orient themselves in their environment to find their prey - and that this is something people do as well. "We use sound to locate ourselves not just physically and culturally, but within ourselves - that is, the deeper meaning of listening, which is listening to yourself. There's meditation, there's listening without sound, and there's attention."

It's also the thinking behind 'Algowave', a sit-down affair in Waltham Forest Community Hub which last week saw prominent live coding artists take to the stage for a one-of-a-kind listening event.


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Algorave performers hellocatfood and a shadowy Joanne Armitage performing at Algowave in Waltham Forest Community Hub in London. Two DJs sat in front of laptops as a live trippy visual plays out on a projector behind them. (Photo: Ciaran Daly)
hellocatfood and a shadowy Joanne Armitage performing at Algowave in Waltham Forest Community Hub (Photo: Ciaran Daly)

Democratising electronica

Live coded concerts, or 'algoraves', see people compose live electronic music through nothing more than writing lines of code in real-time. Using open-source software accessible to anybody, these DJs are able to create awe-inspiring, alien, and occasionally messy pieces of extended experimental music that can delve into a range of genres, from hardcore rave to grime and ambient.

"These days just about all electronic music is made using software, but with artificial barriers between the people creating the software algorithms and the people making the music," the Algorave website explains. "Using systems built for creating algorithmic music and visuals, these barriers are broken down, and musicians are able to compose and work live with their music as algorithms."

Whereas much of today's electronic music requires mastery of a number of different pieces of specialist software and equipment, the idea behind algorave is that anybody can download software to their computer and, using a basic pre-built vocabulary of code, create their own pieces of electronic music. By playing with a few numbers in a text box, composers can modify everything from the speed and tempo to the melody and modalities of their music - while the computer takes care of timing.

Rather than being a genre in itself, algorave is a set of tools - or instruments - that anyone can pick up and play with. This has allowed people from backgrounds typically excluded from electronic music to participate, and the on-stage gender balance of algorave lineups tend to reflect this.

Aïli Arakida, a Copenhagen-based spatial audio designer for virtual reality and an experimental composer, agrees. Over the phone, she tells me that while the technology behind live coded audio has been created by men, the music to come out of it has largely been shaped by women.

“Live coding was my introduction to programming,” Aïli says. “I’d never programmed before university, but it was a way of being able to understand programming through sound. It changed the whole way that I thought about sound—it brought down the walls between music and sound and made me think of composition in a much more holistic way, as something that ebbs and flows.”

For her, live coding shows are less ‘performative’ than typical concerts—but there’s still a large element of performance. “To me it actually feels more natural than if I was to sing an aria and be more dramatic, versus live coding performances where I have to gather this zen-like composure behind a laptop.”