Using code for live music has gone from geeky fringe to underground revolution, offering a fresh approach to music and pattern, even for first-time coders. Alex McLean is one of the people at the center of this medium’s growth.
“Code” in this environment isn’t just about software language. The free, open source tool Alex McLean created, TidalCycles, found its original inspiration in research into analyzing Indian tabla rhythms. These environments are very much about getting closer to the essence of what makes music tick – the underlying technology of musical culture.
With Alex set to play and teach this weekend in Berlin, it seemed the perfect time to get his personal and musical story, and to have him take us on a tour of live coding’s latest frontiers. Alex is a laptop musician and developer, as well as a social organizer for a movement that’s spreading these tools worldwide. Johnny Appleseed style, Alex and others are planting seeds and building up a network of people who share knowledge and support one another. From my vantage point, the live coding scene represents a kind of free, open, collective model for supporting musical practice and culture, in contrast to the generally competitive dominant paradigm.
And oh yeah – that does include the “algorave,” a format Alex has promoted. Step into these marathon live code jams, and you may be surprised – this is danceable stuff, often with shoe-smoldering high tempos.
But if you only saw the novelty of people typing code on laptops to produce sound, you might miss the musical explorations it’s enabling. Perhaps because TidalCycles’ syntax lets you directly express loops and rhythmic ideas from a blank slate, without wrestling with all the chrome and complexity of typical musical software, it’s empowering some very creative work.