Alex McLean

Making music with text

Live programming

by Alex on November 21, 2006

I thought there wasn’t enough context on this log, so here’s a brief history of my experiences with live programming.

So I’ve been writing music in the Perl language for some years now. For the first few years this involved hacking together text based curses interfaces. However inspired by the work of the SuperCollider and ChucK livecoders, as well as my musical collaborator Ade, I began writing and modifying code during performances. As such, the language is the only interface to the music.

A quick example:

Or download as a slightly easier to read avi.

After a couple of years though, it has become clear that Perl is not the ideal language for music. The interpreter itself is good for it, allowing me to reload bits of code in a slapdash manner, and the TMTOWTDI philosophy behind the language lends itself quite well to applications such as music, where *how* you express yourself is somehow important, as well as the end result. But while expressing a musical idea as a bunch of general purpose while loops, if statements and so on is certainly possible, it does not inspire musical thought and experimentation.

The end result is that when I improvise music with Perl in front of an audience, I either make lots of simple, enmeshed polymetric effects and polyrhythms, or call up and modify scripts I’ve composed under less pressured circumstances. Finding myself exploring a new idea during a performance was possible, but rare. However, according to Jeff Pressing, this is true of all human improvisation — through practice we build up processes for generating musical continuations and apply them, with rare changes, during an improvisation.

So, my library of Perl scripts *is* my musical technique. Any musical technique I have as an human (as an entity separate from my computer) is largely lost to me during a performance. If I have it, I don’t have time to express it while others are waiting to hear or dance to something.

The answer could be to switch to a language designed for music, such as SuperCollider or ChucK. Frederic Oloffson and Nick Collins have reported good results after making themselves practice livecoding from scratch with SuperCollider every day for a month.

What I’m intending to try though is making a language built around the kind of music I want to make, able to cope with programming under tight time constraints, allowing vague specification of sound events but well specified enough to allow other bits of software to reason within the language as well as myself.

More to follow…

One thought on “Live programming

  1. snarkyboojum says:

    Have you thought of building this on top of Parrot? I’ve had ideas about doing something like this before stumbling across your site. Very cool to see someone doing such cool stuff.

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