For today’s electroacoustic artist, programming and writing code are by no means unfamiliar concepts. However, their exploitation as a malleable instrument in live performance has proven an engaging development in the past two decades. Alongside live coding practices, laptop ensemble and laptop orchestra (LOrk) configurations have been central to a reorientation of stage-based electroacoustic performance.
Out of the Studio and Onto the Stage
It might seem odd to position something as ubiquitous as the personal or portable computer as a theme in a journal dedicated to electroacoustic practices. But for the authors and artists we present in eContact! 21.1 — the 80th issue since it was first launched in 1998! 1[1. Originally published in March 1998, the inaugural issue of eContact!, Women in Electroacoustics 1, was re-released on 8 March 2022 and dedicated to Andra McCartney (1955–2019).] — programming or coding is not simply another component in the toolkit with which new electroacoustic 2[2. The term “electroacoustic” is understood by the CEC as an accommodating “umbrella term” for sound-based practices using electronic means and not as an indication of any stylistic, æsthetic or formal imperative.] works are developed and created (and sometimes “fixed”) on the computer-as-environment; rather the portable computer (laptop) is exploited as a host and means to dynamic and ephemeral creative sound practices using code-as-interface (Scott Wilson) and coding-as-instrument in live performance.
Live coding and laptop ensemble or orchestra performance practices have arisen in the midst of several parallel and varyingly intertwining trends since the 1990s. Commercial products designed for sound-based creative practices have become progressively more complex, powerful and accessible but have also seemed to increasingly encourage — or have, at the very least, made immeasurably easier — instant, straight-out-of-the-package use. Quite naturally, many have lamented the loss of individual stylistic and æsthetic personality this virtually guarantees, and in response various alternative software and platforms were developed that provide more flexible and customizable environments to their users, allowing for more and more intimate control over the processes driving or forming one’s creative activities. 3[3. Max, Pd and SuperCollider, etc.] The power and capacity of computers and operating systems has also grown exponentially, making it possible for them to host and run a far more elaborate range and combination of tools for real-time, sound-based creation, as well as, more recently, for image- and video-based practices. And while we may not yet have reached the pinnacle of studio-based electroacoustic creation 4[4. By which is clearly implied fixed-media work but also digital performance configurations that are optimized to produce the “right” and possibly “same” result each time in live performance. Whether the “studio” environment is a fully outfitted, dedicated acoustically optimized space with a plethora of equipment or simply a computer with software and plugins is here moot.], for already more than a couple of decades we have witnessed an increasing desire, amongst artists and audience members alike, for a more tactile and visual experience in onstage performance of electroacoustic or electronic music practices. 5[5. Ignoring for the present discussion the performance of electroacoustic works (fixed media or other) on multi-channel diffusion setups, whether by the artist who created them or by specialized diffusion artists.]
With the growing availability of more powerful yet flexible, precise yet accommodating environments, users have been able to define and refine more malleable interfaces and more responsive systems that afford an infinitely greater capacity for personal artistic intent and exploration. Customized and easily portable setups have become the norm to such an extent in the past two decades that it has become possible to take the computer out of the studio and onto the stage, where it has been given a new role in performance: no longer is the computer solely a tool or working environment, it is now the instrument itself. Since the early 2000s, a plethora of collaborations and groups have established an ever-evolving practice of live performance using the laptop computer. While they might sometimes seem to be the “same” on the outside, what each individual’s instrument is capable of or assumes as a role can vary wildly within a given laptop ensemble or laptop orchestra, the latter commonly referred to as a LOrk — a “hat tip” to the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk. 6[6. PLOrk is today one of the better-known laptop bands but is by no means the earliest in existence.] Within these performance configurations, live coding practices are widely prevalent but not, however, exclusively so.
The nature of live coding fosters a performance context that is infinitely malleable, wherein additions and changes made at any point during the performance impact the eventual “outcome” of the resulting work. While general structures and forms, sounds and sound objects, and even fully composed sound blocks or files can indeed be laid out in advance of a performance, the strength of live coding lies in its affordance of an improvisatory approach to creative sound-based practices. Coding can be used to create sounds, patterns and textures from scratch, and to deploy and manipulate structure and form in the moment it is being created. It begs to be exploited in service of a live performance that is ephemeral, the code used to spawn it disappearing in effect over the course of its own evolution. The code is simultaneously exploration, prescription, notation, sound generator, conductor, performer and even listener responding to its own or others’ output. Such a context, devoid as it is of stylistic, æsthetic or formal imperatives, holds great potential for the emergence of intrinsically experimental performance practices.
“It’s Wonderful to Be Back in a Band”: Ensembles and collaborative performance
There is a welcoming and accommodating character to live coding and laptop ensemble formations, and they are also appreciated for their pedagogical potential. In an informal discussion about how live coding has evolved and continues to evolve, and how these developments have been reflected in their own practices, Canadian live coders Scott Wilson, Norah Lorway and David Ogborn point out that laptop ensemble members often come with varying degrees of experience but are encouraged to “Muck in and find [their] own way to be part of it.” Experimentation is strongly encouraged and the “really tight feedback loop” between writing code and hearing the result is a wonderful tool to learn quickly and implement sound decisions in a collaborative artistic environment. Whether the laptop ensembles and orchestras are live coding or performing existing compositions, individual contributions are considered fundamental. For Kasper T. Toeplitz, in contrast to traditional ensembles and orchestras, in many laptop formations, and particularly in his project KERNEL, “the identity of the musicians [shapes] the sound and musical attitude of the ensemble.” It is remarkable what the arrival of the laptop-as-instrument has opened up in terms of “the process of playing” electronic music in concert. But still more important has been its impact on our “thinking about music,” as he discusses in his article, “KERNEL : L’histoire d’un ensemble d’ordinateurs, projet de pensée électronique.”
Because of the rich variety of backgrounds and experience levels across the members in larger configurations, managing interpersonal contact and social interaction can be just as important as addressing musical, technical or technological issues in performance. Shelly Knotts’ recent research has centred “on collective improvisation in computer music and considering how technological and social factors impact on group interactions in those contexts.” In “Negotiating Shared Live Coding Practices in SuperContinent, an Online Laptop Ensemble,” which she authored with Celeste Betancur, Abhinay Khoparzi, Melandri Laubscher, Mynah Marie, David Ogborn, Chiho Oka and Eldad Tsabary, we hear how the members navigate “the balance between contributing, supporting, taking the lead, taking a step back, listening, being heard, leadership, followership, collectivity, etc.” There are many challenges that could possibly arise within an online distributed collaborative project such as SuperContinent, but for Eldad Tsabary (and many others!), “It has also been wonderful to be back in a ‘band’.” And there have indeed been a remarkable number of laptop “bands” since the early 2000s (and even earlier), as evidenced by the “Directory of Canadian and International Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras Active 1995–2022” collated by Jamie Woollard and jef chippewa. These groups have expressed and explored such a wild gamut of interests and mediums — live coding and live cinema, smartphones and tablets, percussion instruments and toys, live image capture, cars… — that the succinctness of the terms live coding, laptop ensemble and LOrk feels quaint. As with other catch-all nomenclatures such as improvisation, chamber music and orchestral music, they inform us very little about the nature of the practices themselves; best to just jump in and start exploring their work!
Reflections on Agency and Interactivity
We recognize that the discussions here, and indeed to some extent in practice, have largely centred around sound- and music-related live performance; however, live coding — or in fact the bulk of contemporary computational creativity practices — is easily adaptable to a potentially unlimited range of creative disciplines. Perhaps we could position live coding within a broader field of algorithmic creativity that is capable of affording performers a creative role and “enabling agency for the human interpreter” in the unfurling of a work in ways that are more often than not impossible in fully composed — or choreographed — works. On this point, Kate Sicchio’s observations in “Live Coding Choreography with Terpsicode” are as applicable to other forms of performative creativity as they are to her own dance works:
Live coding becomes an exploration of what may be possible but is not necessarily a representation of what will actually be performed, because the output is meant to be danced by a human, who has agency within this work to make the final decision on what movement is created.
Thus used, live coding and laptop group configurations can yield combinations, convergences and transitions that might not arise as freely in more traditional, prescriptive contexts where the “score” and “work” are defined to a large extent in advance. Such ensembles can, for example, take advantage of “digital instrument design and performance as the basis for pieces concerned with intertextual exploration and the integration of sound and coding objects from various genres and historical eras.” In “Soundscapes and Anachronisms in Music for Laptop Ensemble,” Michael Lukaszuk sees the laptop ensemble for its creative potential in forging “new frameworks for exploring how listening, spatialization and the intertextual relationships can emerge from electroacoustic composition and improvisation.”
With recent advances in computing and an almost ubiquitous growth of interest in machine learning and computational creativity, yet another realm of group configurations materializes, consisting of software agents that are able to interact with human coders with varying degrees of autonomy. Building on her earlier research focussed on “exploring the potential role of a virtual agent to counterbalance the limitations of human live coding,” here Anna Xambó Sedó explores the theoretical frameworks for “Virtual Agents in Live Coding,” with considerations of the terms “virtuality”, “agency” and “virtual agency”. In her “review of past, present and future directions” for the broader field of live coding practices, she considers collaboration between virtual agents to be not only conceivable and indeed a self-evident inevitability, but also necessary to achieve what Steven Tanimoto calls “strategically predictive” — the sixth level of liveness, where agents have “the ability to act autonomously” in live coding contexts.
Mixed-Media, Intermedia and Poly-Sensory Environments
Closing off the issue are two interviews that dovetail wonderfully with the DIY ethic, the improvisatory unforeseeability and explorations in machine learning that can be encountered in the work of some live coding artists, laptop ensembles and LOrks. Working interactively as early as 1962, liquid light artist and painter Tony Martin used glass slides, projectors, a cracked prism, self-made image plates, light bulbs, fibre optics, backlit glass rods and more to create slowly evolving paintings-in-time in venues such as the Electric Circus (New York). Interviewed in 2008 by Bob Gluck, he also discusses his collaborations with such artists as Ramón Sender, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick as he strove to develop “A Visual language of enormous and tiny, brilliant and slimy, dark and fuzzy.”
With a pair of recent works that feature gravel and cement as artistic materials and function as “Sisyphean kinds of machines that are just working for no apparent reason,” Canadian visual and sound artist Adam Basanta observes the potential of the microphone-as-material through the lens of its unique socio-political identity. In an interview by Michael Palumbo, he discusses his “Kinetic mixed-media installations and an (almost) autonomous AI art factory” that consists of visual works triaged, curated and posted by the computational ecosystem that generates them using “three entirely random systems that don’t know anything about one another.”
As soon as computer systems, software and interfaces were able to support it, on-the-fly coding emerged as a creative approach to sound- and music-based artistic activities — long before the term “live coding” became established as the label for this particular field of performance practice. And reflecting on the breadth of contributions to this issue of eContact! looking at past, current and future trends in live coding, laptop ensembles and LOrks, it is clear that, as Anna Xambó Sedó proposes: “We are just at the beginning of a technologically promising and conceptually exciting journey.”
22 May 2022