Alex McLean

Making music with text

Things coming up

by Alex on August 18, 2013

I’ve been doing a bit *too* much lately. Still a lot of things on the horizon but hopefully a bit more spread out. So while I contemplate my calendar, here’s some public events I’m involved with:

  • Ongoing: I had a really great time during my residency and although I’m now back from Barcelona, the residency period continues for a couple more weeks. I hope to have a release of Texture 2.0 by the end of it.
  • 14th September: London Algorave with Slub and many friends, details to emerge…
  • 15-20th September: The Dagstuhl Seminar on Collaboration and Learning through Live Coding, which I’m co-organising with Alan Blackwell, James Noble and Julian Rohrhuber. These seminars are legendary amongst computer scientists, and we were delighted when our proposal was accepted. The seminar will bring some truly marvellous people together for an intensive week of future thinking in beautiful surroundings, and I can’t wait. This feels like the culmination of a lot of work over the years, and should be the start of many new adventures with friends old and new.
  • 28th September: The first Rafiki Jazz “declaration kriol” gig I’ll be taking part in, as part of the Sensoria Festival in my home town of Sheffield.
  • 4th October: A remote, 16 channel solo live coding performance beamed to UPF, Barcelona
  • 14th October: Off to EarZoom festival in Ljubljana, co-organising/curating an Algorave with them, where I’ll be performing with xname, as well as giving a talk and running a live coding workshop.
  • 18th October: Another Rafiki workshop and gig, at the National Centre for Early Music in York.
  • 31st October: An “algo-kriol” workshop with Rafiki Jazz at at Platforma festival Manchester.
  • 7th November: The first Sheffield Algorave, as part of a week(end?) of dorky/makerly activity happening then. Again as part of Slub and joined by many other algorithmic producers.
  • 12th November: A Slub performance in Kunsthal Aarhus, with a live coding workshop during the day
  • 13th November:Livecoding performance at Amersham Arms as part of an EAVI night.
  • 14th November: A lecture-performance at “Re-configuring the Immune System“, a student-led event at the Media&Comms dept at Goldsmiths, London. I did my PhD at Goldsmiths, looking forward to returning after far too long.
  • 18th November: (provisional): A talk on Tidal at Lambda Lounge in Manchester.
  • Some time during 21st-24th November: A durational live coding performance beamed to Piksel.
  • 28th November: A solo live coding performance at the White Building in Hackney Wick, London.
  • 12th March 2014: A talk and maybe workshop at UWE, Bristol

Release of tidal 0.2.1

by Alex on August 2, 2013

For me the best part of my workshops during my residency here at Hangar was getting the participants to try out Tidal. In the final workshop there were around 12 of us jamming together, each with a speaker in a kind of drumming circle, at several points it was sounding really great.

In between workshops I’ve been cleaning up my various bits of code, and have now tied it all together into the first semi-documented release of Tidal. You can get the docs and the source over here.

Let me know if have feedback, or would like me to run workshops in your town…

Workshop: Drawing, Weaving, and Speaking Live Generative Music

by Alex on July 16, 2013

Some more details about my workshops coming up in Hangar Barcelona. Signup here.

This workshop will explore alternative strategies for creating live sound and music. We will make connections between generative code and our perception of music, using metaphors of speech, knitting and shape, and playing with code as material. We will take a fresh look at generative systems, not through formal understanding but just by trying things out.
Through the workshops, we will work up through the layers of generative code. We will take a side look at symbols, inventing alphabets and drawing sound. We will string symbols together into words, exploring their musical properties, and how they can be interpreted by computers. We will weave words into the patterns of language, as live generation and transformation of musical patterns. We will learn how generative code is like musical notation, and how one can come up with live coding environments that are more like graphical scores.

We will visit systems like Python, Supercollider, Haskell, OpenFrameworks, Processing, OpenCV and experiment as well with more esoteric interfaces.

Schedule:

Session #01
Symbols – This first session will deal with topics such as sound symbology, mental imagery, perception and invented alphabets. We will try out different ways to draw sounds, map properties of shape to properties of sound using computer vision (“acid sketching”,https://vimeo.com/7492566), and draw lines through a sound space created from microphone input. This will allow us to get a feel for the real difference between analogue and digital, how they support each other, and how they relate to human perception and generative music.

Session #02
Words – Some more talk about strings of symbols as words, being articulations or movements, and relate expression in speech (prosody) with expression in generative music. We will experiment with stringing sequences of drawn sounds together, inventing new “onomatopoeic” words. We will look at examples of musical traditions which relate words with sounds (ancient Scottish Canntaireachd, chanting the bagpipes), and also try out vocable synthesis (http://slub.org/world orhttp://oldproject.arnolfini.org.uk/projects/2008/babble/), which works like speech synthesis but uses words to describe articulations of a musical instrument.

Session #03
Language – This session will explore the historical and metaphorical connections between knitting and computation, and between code and pattern. After some in depth talk about live coding, and the problems and opportunities it presents, we’ll spend some time exploring Tidal, a simple live coding language for musical pattern, and understand it using the metaphor of knitting with time.
Tidal: http://yaxu.org/demonstrating-tidal/

Session #04
Notation – Here we will look at the relationship between language and shape, and a range of visual programming languages. We will try out Texture, a visual front-end for Tidal, and try out some ways of controlling it with computer vision, that create feedback loops through body and code.
Texture: http://yaxu.org/category/texture/

Session #05
Final presentation and workshop wrap up.

Level: Introductory/intermediate. Prior programming experience is not required, but participants will need to bring a laptop (preferably a PC, or a Mac able to boot off a DVD), an external webcam and a pair of headphones.

Language: English

Tutor: Alex McLean

Alex McLean is a live coder, software artist and researcher based in Sheffield UK. He is one third of the live coding group Slub, getting crowds to dance to algorithms at festivals across Europe. He promotes anthropocentric technology as co-founder of the ChordPunch record label, of event promoters Algorave, the TOPLAP live coding network and the Dorkbot electronic art meetings in Sheffield and London. Alex is a research fellow in Human/Technology Interface within the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Research in Music, University of Leeds.

http://yaxu.org/ ]
http://slub.org/ ]
http://algorave.com/ ]
http://chordpunch.com/ ]
http://toplap.org/ ]
http://icsrim.org.uk/ ]
http://music.leeds.ac.uk/people/alex-mclean/ ]

Dates:
Tuesday 23.07.2013, 17:00-21:00h
Thursday 25.07.2013, 17:00-21:00h
Saturday 27.07.2013, 12:00-18:00h
Monday 29.07.2013, 17:00-21:00h
Wednesday 31.07.2013, 17:00-21:00h

Location: Hangar. Passatge del Marquès de Santa Isabel, 40. Barcelona. Metro Poblenou.

Price: Free.

To sign up, please send an email to info@lullcec.org with a brief text outlining your background and motivation for attending the workshop. Note that applications won’t be accepted if candidates are unable to commit to attending the course in its entirety.

+info: [ http://lullcec.org/en/2013/workshops/drawing-weaving-and-speaking-live-generative-music/ ]

This workshop has been produced by l’ull cec for Hangar.

Death of algorave

by Alex on July 12, 2013

xname

Here’s a room recording of xname and I playing a post-algorave set at Audacious Space in Sheffield. We start making sound from about 4 minutes in.

Xname performed using handmade circuits controlled with strobes and other lights. I used my livecoding DSL Tidal, which also sent flashing patterns to a monitor flat on the table, so xname’s system could be in sync with mine. She also directly beatmatched strobe frequencies, it turns out she has a secret DJ past.

I was pretty much hypnotised by xname’s strobes while live coding and didn’t really know how it went at the time, but am really happy with this recording. You’ll have to imagine the strobes.

Residency in Barcelona

by Alex on July 1, 2013

I’m very happy to have a month’s residency in Barcelona coming up, starting 22nd July 2013. I’ll be running workshops (probably at the beginning, while locals are still in town) and working on some new things. It’s produced by L’ull Cec for Hangar, in the context of the Addicted2Random project, which is funded by the European culture programme. It’ll be really great to get some real focus on things I’m desperate to get done.

Declaration Kriol

by Alex on June 30, 2013

img_2771I’ve been working with Arts on the Run and Rafiki Jazz on an embedded research project, developing software around group composition / improvisation sessions. It’s interesting to be developing computer language when the members of the band have different mother tongues and musical heritage, so that the technology forms part of the ongoing cultural negotiation. The technology I’m making will form the voice of an “avatar”, which will be created by puppet maker Emma Powell, and which will join the band on stage. So the technology will literally contribute another language (or at least pseudo-language, but lets see!). The project is using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the most translated document) as inspiration, hence the name.

My involvement is funded by the Culture, Society and Innovation Hub, University of Leeds, where my fellowship with ICSRiM is based. The Declaration Kriol project is also funded by the AHRC Transmitting Musical Heritage project, University of Sheffield.

Here is the first recording I contributed to using my new software. The track was composed and recorded in a single day at Yellow Arch in Sheffield:

So far the software organises sound sampled live from from the vocalists into a timbre space, and I’m then triggering ‘drawings’ in that space. The drawings are forming a set of symbols, I guess words are next… As you can hear, the software forms a very small part of the whole, here’s all the fine people involved, in no particular order:

Kadialy Kouyate (senegal): kora
Vanessa Rani Chutturghoon (uk/mauritius): vocals
Catherine Carr (uk): guitar
Sarah Yaseen (uk): vocals
Mina Salama (egypt): ney and kawala flutes
Jaheda Choudhury (uk/bangladesh) MC
Guery Tibirica (brazil): berimbau, percussion
John Ball (uk): tabla
Tony Koni: fretless bass
Alex ‘yaxu’ McLean: code (algo-kriol)
Arad Tamizi (Iran): daf
Monica Ross, Acts of Memory: Declaration mentor
Aysegul Thornett: documentary photography
Joao Paulo Simoes: documentary filming
Robin Downe, Yellow Arch Studios: sound engineer

Touring in the Autumn!

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What on earth is live coding?

by Alex on June 20, 2013

Busy times at the moment, but a quick pause to link to the afore-mentioned full interview in Dazed and Confused by the fine Stephen Fortune. I think the on-line version is a bit longer than in print. There’ll likely be another algorave related article in Wired magazine (the UK version I think) in the next month or so. Anyway here’s the text from Dazed and Confused for posterity:

Alex McLean is a programmer and live coder. He performs with a livecoding band called Slub and tours with the travelling Algorave festival. But what is “livecoding” exactly? “Live coders are basically performing by writing computer programs live on stage, while the programs are generating their art – whether that’s visuals or music,’ McLean says. “Their computer screens are projected, so that the audience can see the code being manipulated. But the focus is on the music, on people dancing and seriously enjoying themselves”. In the run up to an Algorave aboard the MS Stubnitz, London, we met McLean who did his best to scramble our brain.

Do you think a newcomer to the algorave scene would leave enlightened or mystified?
Hopefully they would enjoy the music without feeling that they were compelled to understand it. Also because we’re making music, not doing formally specified software engineering, there’s no real ground of understanding anyway, apart from the music itself. Even those making the software don’t really have to understand it – “bugs” often get into the code which don’t make sense, but still sound good, so we just go with it.

Is there any genre or activity which you feel livecoding resembles?
In terms of algorithmic music, on one side there’s the “electroacoustic” focus on experimental sound, the search for new dimensions of timbre and musical movement. But Live coding is a way of making music and is not tied to any particular genre. I’ve heard live coders make drone music, jazz, indian classical music, indie covers, and hip hop manipulated beatbox.

How do ideas circulate throughout the scene?
There’s a big overlap with free and open source culture, so sharing ideas in the form of software and sourcecode happens a great deal. There are many languages for algorithmic music and video, such as Supercollider, Fluxus, ChucK, Impromptu and PureData, and strong communities of practice have grown around them.

Are your fellow algoravers proficient programmers?
Yes, many livecoders make and adapt their own programming environments: that takes some experience. But proficiency at coding dance music is different to making financial systems or whatever. I’ve run workshops where I’ve got non-programmers making acid house together in a couple of hours. I think there’s real possibility to make producing algorave music more like drumming circles, where beginners can just join in and learn through doing.

Can any sort of coding be a creative activity? Or only certain forms, like livecoding?
Creativity is a surprisingly recent concept, and not that well defined, but I like to think of it as everyday behaviour, which most people engage in daily. Coding generally involves making sense out of huge, crazy structures, and it’s impossible to get anywhere without zoning out into a state of focussed, creative flow.

You claim you’d like to make programming more like a synthesiser. How would that be different from the other software systems that people use to make music?
I think it’s important to consider programming as exploration rather than implementation, because then we are using computer languages more like human languages. Any software interface can be thought of as a language, but the openness of programming allows us to set our own creative limits to explore, instead of working inside fixed, pre-defined limits. To me this is using computers on a deep level for what they are – language machines.

Who (or what) inspires you?
If I had to pick one person it would have to be Laurie Spiegel, I love the way she writes about using computer language to transform musical patterns.

Check out the original article.

Things coming up

by Alex on May 3, 2013

I’m having a bit of a breather at the moment, but here’s some of the things I am up to over the Summer:

16th May 2013

Another Algorave on the MS Stubnitz. The last one was masses of fun, and really looking forward to seeing what the next one turns up..

May 27-30 2013

I won’t actually be there, but EunJoo Shin will present our collaboration microphone at NIME 2013, as a paper and installation.

15th June 2013

A performance collaboration with xname at the Audacious Space in Sheffield. Difficult to say much about this, but it’s going to be noisy..

27-28th June 2013

A paper on the Textural X (dodgy preprint here), and a performance at xCoAx2013: Computation, Communication, Aesthetics and X in Bergamo.

11th July 2013

Another outing to London for the Thursday Club, for a presentation and performance with Kate Sicchio of our piece in development “Sound Choreography <> Body Code”. Here’s some footage from our first performance at Audio:Visual:Motion.

19th-21st July 2013

Performance and workshops at the awesome Deer Shed Festival in North Yorks with Dave.

15th August 2013

A pre-warning of a gig at Cafe OTO, the return of lurk, featuring Leafcutter John, Alexandra Cardenas, Roger Dean and a new collaboration between Paul Hession and myself. Especially looking forward to this after recently realising I’ve actually seen Paul play before, several years ago with Tom Jenkinson and Matthew Yee-King:

15-20th September 2013

Co-organising the Schloss-Dagstuhl seminar Collaboration and Learning through Live Coding. Really excited about this, and we plan to do some other things around Europe before and/or after..

Appearances elsewhere

by Alex on April 23, 2013

2013-04-17 12.49.15I got a couple of kind mentions etc lately:

That’s it! Hopefully I will survive all this attention.