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  © The Radical Art Review 2019 

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.

Related: Europe will crumble - the rise of Hatari

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.”

Related: Awaiting the third disruption

Coding uncertainty

"The way I play, there’s loads of chance."

Whereas algorave sets feature at festivals all over the world, ALGOWAVE is a name specifically of Joel's invention. He explains that he wanted to host an algorave event which took listeners away from the 'spectacle' typically associated with live dance events so the focus would remain squarely on the sound.


On-stage at the Arts Hall, prominent live coder and Renaissance-style polymath Joanne Armitage is composing a crunchy, crispy drone set alongside algorithmic visual artist Hellocatfood, who is doing much the same thing but with a series of trippy, almost hypnagogic visuals.

hellocatfood live-coding visuals with co34pt (Source: S Cotterill)

Since 2014, Joanne has one of the most prominent live coding musicians on the scene, playing sets all over the world both solo and as one half of female algo-pop duo ALGOBABEZ. A classically trained violinist, she's also a PhD in Sound and Music Computing and is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media at Leeds Uni. For her, algorave technology introduces an element of chance and spontaneity typically unseen from traditional instruments.

"The way I play, there’s loads of chance," a rather frazzled Joanne tells me off-stage. "Working with randomization algorithms you can create uncertainty and instability without a lot of code. That’s what we like – not having to type too much code and getting some sound variation."


Having played in bands before becoming a live coder, algorave was never an unfamiliar terrain for Joanne. She talks about the algorithms as if they're just a different instrument, rather than just a set of computer programmes.


"What differs is just how close you are to the sounding body. On a violin you feel the sound in a very tactile way. On a laptop we’re just typing and hoping to see what happens. There’s a lot less feel to it and in some ways there’s a lot less precision. You don’t have to worry about time because the computer deals with that. You just have to worry about how you structure things."

hellocatfood plus Miri Kat and Jack Armitage (Photo: Ciaran Daly)

'We're All Bats' run until November 3, with many of the events free or available for under £10. Find out more

Ciarán Daly is the Co-Editor of The Radical Art Review. Reach him at radicalartreview@gmail.com

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