Negotiating Shared Live Coding Practices in SuperContinent, an Online Laptop Ensemble
SuperContinent was initially launched in 2018 in connection with “Platforms and Practices for Networked, Language-Neutral Live Coding,” a research project focussed on developing the Estuary collaborative, live coding platform (Ogborn et al. 2017), with a specific emphasis on developing Estuary’s utility for geographically distributed live coding ensembles.
The ensemble currently has eight members from around the world. At the beginning of the project, David Ogborn and Shelly Knotts used their contact network to find at least one member in each continent, and since then, the ensemble expanded outwards to include additional members suggested by others in the group, with the basic criteria that each member should be a minimum of 500 km from the next nearest member and have an interest in performing with live coding. The current members of SuperContinent are located in Japan, Canada, India, the UK, Colombia, Israel and South Africa; we previously had members in Australia and Mexico.
The minimum distance parameter was an important factor in building a truly distributed ensemble, while attempting to avoid Euro-American centrism and to give weight in the ensemble to areas of the world that are traditionally underrepresented in computer music research. As ensemble member Melandri Laubscher describes, “It was rather exciting to be a part of something that is fairly new this side of the world (South Africa).”
The side effect of this, however, was that we came together as a group of musicians who mostly had never played together — live or networked — and in some cases didn’t even know each other. In the absence of the normal social factors of a music ensemble we used online platforms, particularly the Estuary platform itself, to negotiate a group dynamic, shared practices and a group identity — in a large group such as this, this is no mean feat. And more so when we have never all been in the same room as each other. But the ensemble largely saw this as a welcome challenge. Shelly was excited by “how we came together through code even though we’re thousands of kilometres apart. We have built a shared understanding through synchronously writing and sharing code and sound.”
In order to look at the effects of this on the establishment and growth of the ensemble, we will describe the technologies we use, the practices that have developed out of our ways of working and thinking, the organizational principles we use in the ensemble and how each of these factors intersect. A discussion of the ensemble’s approaches to live coding and its use of the Estuary platform (Video 1) will help examine how these may have impacted our practice, as well as how being a long-distance and intercontinental ensemble affects how we work and leads to new group practices that may differ to those of a co-located, non-live coding ensemble.
Following some opening statements from each of the group members on their motivations for joining the group, we move on to describing the technical aspects of the ensemble. We then discuss how we communicate and organize ourselves, including individual experiences of rehearsing from home. In conclusion, individual members offer their viewpoints on how we learn through the ensemble and interface, and offer some reflections of the practices and playing styles that have emerged through the group’s rehearsals and discussions.
Beginnings and Motivations
In this section, individual group members describe their motivations for joining SuperContinent.
Celeste Betancur (Columbia)
Joining a live coding ensemble was a natural step for me because after doing live coding for years (since 2012) it was important to share, discuss and see how other people are approaching live coding practice. Now, there are different kinds of ensembles and SuperContinent brings an opportunity to listen and see other people’s code, from such different backgrounds, native languages, live code histories, nationalities… SuperContinent was an opportunity to grow in many ways.
Melandri Laubscher (South Africa)
I first heard of live coding, and more specifically laptop orchestras, back in 2018 during the third year of my undergraduate music degree at the University of Pretoria. My lecturer (now supervisor), Miles Warrington, was the person who first introduced me to the idea behind live coding. We began establishing our own ensemble, at first seeking to perform in concert halls and venues until COVID-19 came along. We had to find another way to continue working on expanding our ensemble. Joining SuperContinent came as an opportunity when Warrington could not spare extra time to participate and instead asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot. Obtaining more experience as a performer in this context would assist with setting up our own ensemble. My main reason for joining SuperContinent was to expand my knowledge of live coding, since I really enjoyed combining my technological knowledge with music performance. I had previously only performed in a jazz ensemble and had no other collective music-making experience.
Mynah Marie (Canada, Israel, Portugal)
I joined SuperContinent because the thought of being part of a “band” who could make music together online felt exciting! I was still new to TidalCycles (McLean 2014) when I joined so I was grateful for the opportunity to learn a new language and to get to meet other live coders from all around the world. I loved the idea that I could sit anywhere and have the ability to make music with people simply through an Internet connection. Being a musician, I’m used to playing in bands with formal rehearsals. This idea of playing with people I never even met in real life transported me straight into a science fiction movie. I was intimidated at first, but I just couldn’t say no to such a unique experience.
David Ogborn (Canada)
When Eldad, Shelly and I were proposing the research project that led to SuperContinent being launched, some kind of globally distributed ensemble was a key part of the conception of the new project. For me, this was a further exploration of some earlier experiences with Shared Buffer 1[1. Initially with Alex McClean and Eldad Tsabary; later also with Alexandra Cárdenas.], which did an early series of live geographically distributed live coding performances using the extramuros platform, a very small piece of software I had created to allow collaborative editing of live coding (Ogborn et al. 2015). Like Estuary, extramuros aimed at a plurality of languages. However, extramuros depends on software outside of the browser, which makes it different from the “batteries included” experience that Estuary aims for.
A difference between Shared Buffer (Video 2) and SuperContinent is that with the latter there are members who have never met in real life and who only met online because of and through this ensemble, and I think that is an interesting experiment in itself. So much of musical and artistic life reproduces existing social relations and so it is interesting (although I don’t think we should exaggerate how much we have done this, there are plenty of connections between people) to form collaborative ensembles at least partially on the basis of distance rather than (social) proximity.
Eldad Tsabary (Canada)
Collective improvisation and metronomic telematics have been of primary interest to me in my research and creation, especially via my work with the Concordia Laptop Orchestra (CLOrk) (Tsabary 2014) and in collaboration with David’s Cybernetic Orchestra (Tsabary, Stewart and Ogborn 2011; CLOrk and Cybernetic Orchestra 2013). Joining SuperContinent was hugely attractive because of the ensemble’s wide geographical distribution, the live coding expertise and styles of its members, the improvisatory nature of live coding and the metronomic collective-music-making possibilities live coding permits. It has also been wonderful to be back in a “band”.
Chiho Oka (Japan)
I usually play computer music alone. When I play with others, I tend to enjoy the awkwardness of the ensemble and I am interested in the difference between human and mechanical regularity in the music. Since I joined the SuperContinent ensemble with Estuary, I enjoy the practice as something a little different from what I usually do.
I think that a unique character that computer music and live coding have is to make a performance through the communication between the players, clocks and automations, etc. of a device. In the ensemble, the term “online” is added to those and there is an intersection of each performer’s separate clock. When I first joined, I thought that this is a huge-scale composition of electronic music.
Abhinay Khoparzi (India)
Even though I’d been playing in laptop bands and with live coding and patching setups for years (since 2007), my real live coding career didn’t start until we began organizing local Algorave events in India in 2018. I was aware of the existence of Estuary and had had a couple of conversations with David on the TOPLAP chat platform 2[2. TOPLAP, or the Temporary Organisation for the Parsimony of Live Algorithmic Programming, was formed in 2004 with a draft manifesto and has become the de facto home of live coding on the web, with a website, chat platforms, mailing lists and other information about live coding.], while trying out solutions for running Live Coding workshops without the need to install complex software setups. After meeting Shelly at an Algorave (Collins and McLean 2014) in Sheffield, we had an online conversation where she mentioned that they were looking for participants for the SuperContinent research project. At this time, I had often dreamed of but had never seen, let alone joined, a collaborative performance where the participants were in an entirely different location. Nor was I aware of the network music capabilities of Estuary. It truly was a revelation when I first got to try it and I was totally hooked.
Shelly Knotts (UK)
My research centres on collective improvisation in computer music and considering how technological and social factors impact on group interactions in those contexts. I’m particularly interested in intersectional feminist approaches to music technology and algorithmic music making and previously initiated and wrote software for OFFAL — Orchestra for Females and Laptops (Knotts 2016), a telematic music ensemble with members around the world (Video 3).
I was also a member of the co-located laptop ensembIe BiLE — Birmingham Laptop Ensemble (Booth and Gurevich 2012), in which we took a socially centred approach to developing a group improvisation practice. In my own performance practice as a live coder, I am interested in exploring new contexts and practices of live coding, including interdisciplinary and long-distance collaboration. When David asked me to be involved in the research project that spawned SuperContinent, I saw it as a way to combine my previous interests in socially constituted collective improvisation and live coding. I also saw the criteria of non-proximity as an interesting way to bring together a group of people who wouldn’t necessarily have worked together before and was excited by the musical possibilities that might bring.
The principal tool used by SuperContinent to make music together online is the collaborative live coding platform Estuary. 3[3. The main deployment of Estuary server can be found here (Chrome, Chromium, Opera or Edge are recommended browsers).] It was launched in late 2015 (the first commit on its codebase took place in early December that year), although discussions that would lead to Estuary took place sometime prior to the launch. The earliest versions of Estuary provided a completely browser-based interface for collaborating in the TidalCycles live coding language (as well as alternate, projectional notations related to TidalCycles), but it quickly evolved into a web-based environment emphasizing the interaction of a plurality of live coding languages in collaborative, online ensembles.
In recent years, the Estuary platform has evolved to support languages that work with generative visuals and/or video (CineCer0, Hydra, Punctual) and interfaces specialized for organizing live coding improvisation practices such as “roulette”, in which people take turns modifying shared code (Guzdial 2013, 163) — both these practices have been explored at times by SuperContinent. A single instance of the Estuary platform running on a server is capable of supporting a very large number of simultaneous ensembles, as the server’s role is simply to provide the software to the web browser and to share “edits” between the members of an ensemble. All the calculation of audio and visual results is done in each player’s web browser, by their local machine. One of the inevitable challenges of this model — intended to make live coding experiences highly available by only requiring participants to have a web browser — is that it is all too easy for a group of live coding artists to tax the software (i.e. the browser) with more audio and video than can be rendered in real time, a challenge that gets more acute with larger ensembles like SuperContinent. 4[4. Further commentary on this challenge appears below, under General Setup and Challenges.]
Among the priorities for the next period of Estuary’s development is the integration of interfaces whose sole or main purpose is to facilitate communication and decision-making within collaborative ensembles like SuperContinent. As one of the main groups that are consistently and regularly exploring what is possible with the Estuary platform, SuperContinent’s experiences and views on communication and decision-making can directly impact the development of the platform. Sometimes what starts as an informal practice, supported by borrowed tools and improvisations, can advantageously be formalized into a software interface. In SuperContinent, we’ve discussed developing interfaces in the software that articulate the choice of improvisation strategies (see “Practices: Strategies”, below), for example.
The Estuary platform is free and open-source software, released under the terms of the GNU General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3, 29 June 2007). While anyone is free to build, deploy and modify the software, it is expected that most people will prefer to just use the main deployment at estuary.mcmaster.ca. In addition to being frequently updated by the development team, this deployment is running on powerful server hardware 5[5. Part of the Networked Imagination Laboratory at McMaster University.] and can support a very large number of simultaneous ensembles around the world, each of whom need to do little else than fire up a web browser. The ease with which it can be set up and run means that it is also very useful for learning and workshop situations!
General Setup and Challenges
Running a telematic ensemble brings with it many opportunities, not least that we can still perform together without multiple members needing to fly around the world to attend an event. The Estuary platform is particularly empowering in this regard, as avoiding audio streaming between performers eliminates many of the bandwidth and latency issues that plague telematic ensembles (Wilson 2020; Oliveros et al. 2009; Rofe and Reuben 2017). That said, it is common in performance situations for SuperContinent to use live streaming to broadcast the performance. In theory, audience members could connect to the Estuary platform itself, but in practice this would invite problems with such a wide distribution of computing power attempting to render audio and visuals in the browser.
Live streaming a SuperContinent event can be an organizational and technical challenge for whoever is running the setup — there are so many points of potential failure in it and it can be difficult (especially when working from home) to know when something has stopped working. There can also be opaque, intermittent failures in the streaming software that may not be obvious to the person running the stream. Unfortunately, it is difficult to distribute responsibility for livestreaming over the group; the person responsible for streaming normally has an OBS setup on their machine directing an audiovisual stream to YouTube, and this can only be done from one location at a time. This technical coordinator also needs to monitor the stream via YouTube, coordinate the group (when to start and stop, for example) and watch for and resolve any technical problems that may arise. Normally, another ensemble member has a backup streaming setup “ready to go” but the real challenge is actually knowing when something has gone wrong.
Currently, things are a bit easier for the group now in this respect because whoever is running the streaming can go to the Networked Imagination Laboratory and use multiple high-powered computers simultaneously in a comfortable environment. 6[6. Under pandemic protocols (as of late 2020) the lab was available for work that couldn’t be done at home, and robustly operating a livestreaming setup was one of those things.] This high-tech lab, though helpful, is not crucial to our setup. Abhinay (Fig. 1) often runs a backup stream for our performance from his home studio for which he has a couple of hardline Internet connections on a consumer-level load balancer connected directly to a high-performance desktop computer.
Before we started doing live-streamed events, we always had at least one ensemble member physically present at the performance venue monitoring and managing the video projection and sound. Since there is no overhead of screen capture, this is possible with a lower-power machine. Time zone differences have, in some ways, worked as a useful inhibitor, as anything but late-evening performances in India’s time zone (where Abhinay is often active) have proven difficult for more than three or four members to attend, effectively keeping the overall machine load for the in-venue computer at manageable levels. Perhaps counterintuitively, things became a little more difficult technically when everyone had to rehearse from home due to COVID-related restrictions, and we suddenly had greater attendance of ensemble members on performance days.
A related challenge of using the Estuary platform for a large ensemble is that it can be difficult to predict how other performers’ computers will respond to complex patterns and functions that require more processing. Some members reported having challenging technical issues during performances and needing to reload Estuary multiple times while playing.
Managing machine load in the ensemble has an interesting dynamic to it. This is something that starts “hard” and gets “easier” with time, in part because of optimizations in the code of Estuary and its independent languages, but even more so because with practice in a particular configuration, group members get a sense of what pushes someone else’s machine too hard and get better at backing off and avoiding those stressors. While Estuary does display some statistics about machine load, the secure context of the web browser places some limits on measuring machine performance. For example, the performance of the underlying Web Audio API can’t be measured directly, because doing so might allow individual machines to be “fingerprinted” by websites. So, people’s anecdotal reports about machine load in the chat window or seeing that they have left the ensemble and returned is an even stronger clue that someone is having trouble with rendering and that we are collectively pushing the machines too hard. This difficulty with machine load intersects in some ways with the dynamic membership and attendance of the group, in that when the group composition changes abruptly, that’s when we’re most likely to encounter difficulties predicting load issues.
Connection and Shared Goals
Coordinating an ensemble entirely online brings with it some challenges, but also some opportunities for rethinking how to organize a music ensemble (Braasch 2009; Rofe, Murray and Parker 2017). Throughout the development of the ensemble, we have had regular discussion about how to manage ourselves practically. We considered how particular platforms might facilitate or hinder particular communication forms and how they might reinforce or discourage particular hierarchies in the group.
In a group that includes members in different time zones and with many different goals and commitments beyond the ensemble it has been important to regularly take stock of how the group dynamics are functioning and whether our organizational principles — which may be enabling for some people — are also functioning well for others. This is particularly important as the membership of SuperContinent is constantly evolving, and what might work for one set of people might not work for another. Having the same group of people attending consistently across many time zones, changing schedules and vast distances is a challenge — and attendance fluctuates according to members’ other commitments. This has an obvious impact on the group organization and dynamics, which are important aspects of any ensemble, telematic or otherwise. Working to include members who, for example, struggle with a particular rehearsal time or regularity requires reviewing our goals and structures.
Understanding how hegemonic factors and social hierarchies may emerge in such a group (Born 2017; Tsabary 2016) allows us to ameliorate these friction factors, foster inclusive and tolerant attitudes, and aim for more or less equitable contribution among group members.
In this context, syncing everyone’s intentions and expectations is a challenge. We share an awareness that although we are participating in the same activity, our experiences are multifarious — both socially and as a feature of the interface we have a limited shared truth. Rendering may happen at slightly different times on different machines, and we may choose to view the visuals or not, depending on available graphical processing unit (GPU) power. Knowing “who does what” is not always possible, a fact that is further amplified by physical distance and situational variation among members.
Due to this multiplicity, our shared goals as a group feel very fluid and emerge somewhat organically through our practice and principles. A few factors that have felt important to this are:
- We perceive the ensemble as an innovative, experimental entity where we can try things out — we are discovering together, while also discovering individually.
- Almost no performance or rehearsal has every current member of the ensemble involved, and that is ok — it elicits a sort of ego-softening effect on the collective experimentation of the ensemble and corresponds to the CC0 7[7. Creative Commons “No Rights Reserved” licence.] character of everything we create.
- The kindness and generosity of everyone involved.
There are, in fact, many similarities between an offline ensemble and online ensemble. Human dynamics play a huge part in shaping our ways of communicating (or not) and how these transpire online. It has also been interesting to understand how we listen to each other in the music and how syncing of our musical intentions has helped us individually to grow our connections in the group, in a similar way to jamming in co-located ensembles. Group members have emphasized the importance of establishing relationships with others in the group and developing a feeling of connection. Eldad and Melandri explain:
[Eldad] I feel excited about the distance. I love the fact that we share a routine together, making the world much smaller; but also, I feel excited about the potential of meeting in person — all these potential travel adventure destinations once we beat this pandemic.
[Melandri] Even though I have not met any of you in person I still feel some sort of mutual connection, especially when we are working together to achieve a shared goal.
On the other hand, playing online, like participating in online life in our social lives, can also lend itself a sense of “anonymity” that, for some, can be liberating (Russell 2020). It frees us from the egos, personalities and hegemonic factors that can play a large part in shaping group structures in co-located ensembles. Although we participate in group discussion via Slack, discussion is a less dominant process in our group than it likely would be in a co-located ensemble. We are largely negotiating a group dynamic and shared musical style through playing and coding together. We test different roles — leading, dominating, rebelling, breaking, accompanying, listening, watching, etc. — in the performance space, fluidly through the music. As with any ensemble, this experimentation has mixed results, as Melandri and Mynah have noted:
[Melandri] I often find myself so “into” what the group is doing that it almost feels as if time stands still for the duration of the performance.
[Mynah] Sometimes, it’s not easy to find the right flow between us. Things can feel forced, or we might feel a bit lost in the creative process at times.
After a rehearsal we’re able to unpick what worked and what didn’t through online group discussions, which will be explored in the next section.
Communication and Discussion
As an online ensemble, we rely on technology platforms to communicate, each of which, though generalized to a degree, is designed with different modalities and temporalities in mind, and may enable and hinder different people in ways that require some critical thought. In the case of SuperContinent, we operate in different time zones, many of us have never met and we do not share a common first language. In order to understand the logistics of our communications, it will be helpful to detail some of the criteria and thought processes that have occurred in and around our ensemble discussions (Video 4).
Though English has become the default language of exchange for the ensemble, each member has a different relationship with the English language, which leads to distinct challenges and perspectives when communicating online. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the speed at which discussions develop when English is not your first language. This can cause some members to stay more in the background during online conversations or wait until they have the time to put their thoughts down properly, even if that means messaging in the group chat after the discussion has ended. It can sometimes be frustrating, not just for the people having a harder time typing in English, but also as we try to maintain a non-hierarchical structure, it is important to facilitate everyone’s opinions on many topics.
Since we are all aware and respectful of one another, we always attempt to include everyone, either by encouraging people to answer or by tagging someone in a chat to bring to their attention that we’d like to know their thoughts. Sometimes participation can be facilitated simply by sitting back, allowing others the time to type and instantiating a slower pace to the discussion. Asking questions is encouraged and we are very open with one another and willing to share our opinions and knowledge.
Most of our conversations are text-based, with exchanges happening through a digital communications platform. Though we had many discussions about people’s preferences for various chat clients, an inability to reach any unanimous verdict resulted in Slack being chosen for the administrative reason that the Networked Imagination Laboratory at McMaster’s University where David is based already had an active Slack workspace. 8[8. At the time of writing, though, this venue seems to be deprecated in favour of various Discord servers.]
As we communicate primarily through text, everyone is careful to pay attention to the way they express themselves, as clarity can sometimes be an issue in this form of communication. It is easy to fall into misunderstandings if you don’t hear someone’s tone of voice or see their facial expressions. Particularly as some of the members of the ensemble have never met away from the keyboard, building a rapport and shared understanding between members took a little longer than it may have done for a co-located ensemble.
Having only written words to rely on for communication also has some positives, however. There’s a certain element to online conversations that makes them very “clean” and straight to the point. On text chat clients, people tend to express themselves more succinctly. Though this can feel slightly impersonal sometimes — some members even described it as feeling a bit robotic — it can make it easier to maintain some level of neutrality to each member’s sensitivities and emotions and to stay focussed on what’s important: our work, our creative process and maintaining a supportive atmosphere for collaboration and learning.
Eldad offers his perspective on this situation:
I perceive discussions as “still rehearsing”. The growth of an ensemble — and human beings overall — is a combination of acting and reflecting… A kind of research-creation-in-action in which the acting provides things to talk about and the discussion provides points to act upon. The fact that our conversations happen online through text doesn’t bother me much, because the “doing” (live coding together) also happens this way. It’s the nature of our collaboration overall.
That being said, because discussions happen online, it’s easy to fall into the trap of not treating them as “real conversations”. Sometimes, they can feel a bit rushed and not everyone is consistently able to take the time to be fully present post-rehearsal for group talks. As an ensemble, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that the perspectives of those members who are unable to participate in a given discussion are still crucial to the ensemble’s growth as well as to the development of the discussions. We feel the effects of neglecting them over an extended period: our rehearsals lose cohesion and, as a result, what we create together feels less inspired.
Acknowledging the fact that we are still human beings behind our screens and taking the time to connect through video calls once in a while helps to bring all of our online work together in balance. As much as we enjoy creating and communicating together online — and even though we are all grateful to have this kind of technology at our disposal, allowing us to create together while bypassing challenges like time zones, distance and borders (especially now, in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic) — human connection is still important. Sharing moments in a video chat gives us the chance to develop an emotional connection with one another, which is an important part of building trust, respect and friendship. These are all important elements for sharing a creative process with a group of people.
Rehearsing From Home
Although it was always the ensemble’s practice to rehearse remotely, this took on a new meaning in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to retreat to our homes. We moved out of university studios, local rehearsal spaces, cafés and hotels (for those of us who were previously travelling on a regular basis for work) and into the home office — and, in some cases, the garden or even a campground (Fig. 2). This structural modification felt like a natural space for SuperContinent and has, for some, helped develop an extra sense of comfort and ease in the ensemble. The shared experience of “rehearsing from home” perhaps gives an extra aspect of connection, as we play from our own kitchens, bedrooms and basements. It is interesting to see the similarities and differences in the members’ own experiences of rehearsing with SuperContinent, in their views on the physical nature of rehearsing from home and how this impacts their practice in the ensemble. 9[9. The following comments reflect the members’ experiences as of February 2021.]
Over the spring, summer and even a bit of the fall months, I tend to do the rehearsal from outside (Fig. 2) if at all possible (rain would be the main obstacle), which is nice as so much electronic musicmaking happens indoors! Rehearsing inside is a bit more “serious”, but also confusing since it’s not separated from normal home things, family, etc. When rehearsing inside, I usually do it around breakfast time from the dinner table, where my youngest daughter will sometimes comment on the music, even though it’s in headphones (she hears the beats through the bleed, I think).
Sometimes for performances that have a public audience, I’ll actually go into the Networked Imagination Laboratory at McMaster University (a space designed around networked live coding) to make sure that connections and computation are as robust as possible. So, I would say that I experience this ensemble from a blend of home and work situations. Schedule-wise, being able to rehearse from home definitely makes so many things possible that otherwise would be less likely. For example, pre-pandemic, I would rehearse with SuperContinent for half an hour at 8:00 a.m. before walking with my daughter to school at 8:30 a.m., a kind of tight schedule that would be totally impossible with an in-person ensemble of any kind!
It’s usually too cold here in the north of England for outdoor rehearsing, like others have mentioned — even in summer!! Right now, I rehearse in my home office, which has a small studio setup with Genelec monitor speakers. I feel lucky to be able to hear the ensemble with great sound quality from the comfort of my home. My flat is quite small and because of the pandemic my partner (who is also a live coder) also works from home. He often comments on what he liked about our rehearsals, and I really value regularly getting an external perspective on our rehearsals. My dog also sometimes sleeps on the sofa behind me while we rehearse (depending on what we play!) — it’s 1 p.m. here when we rehearse, and the sun is usually shining on the sofa where she likes to lie. The informality of rehearsing from home definitely brings a different sense of ease to playing in the ensemble. Sometimes I think this makes it easier to relax into and flow with the music than rehearsing in a normal rehearsal space.
Because the ensemble is long-distance, fitting the rehearsals in between other things actually feels easier, since I can just rehearse from wherever I am, and as we do a short rehearsal it is usually possible to fit this in around other commitments. Pre-COVID times, I was travelling relatively often and rehearsing wherever I could sit with headphones and a laptop connected to Wi-Fi. With most ensembles you sometimes miss rehearsals due to travel. Even with other telematic ensembles I’m in, it’s trickier to connect when on a busy travel schedule because of the interface(s) being more technically complex and harder to set up — using a browser-based interface is definitely enabling, in this sense. I can’t think of another group that I’ve rehearsed with as consistently as this one. Rehearsing in alien spaces also affects what I play — I definitely feel like my physical surroundings have a big impact on how weird, rebellious or conventional I play.
There is a sense of safety that I love in rehearsing at home. I usually wake up 10 minutes before rehearsals, brush my teeth, drink water and walk to my basement study/studio/gym. I love opening Estuary and immediately transporting into the world “outside”. Being a night person, I often sleep very little before the rehearsal and at times I may return to bed after the post-rehearsal discussion. The nearly instant transitions between the very private world of sleep and the collective imagined space of SuperContinent works perfectly for me. I feel very comfortable and inspired by the sense of multipresence that comes with it.
In my experience, rehearsals were not necessarily about where I was rehearsing per se, since the excitement of rehearsing overshadowed everything else I was experiencing for some time. My family is extremely supportive of everything I do, and they encourage me to pursue my interests to any extent that I want. I rehearsed at the kitchen counter, at my desk in my bedroom, at work (after lockdown) and pretty much anywhere I could find a spot to plug my Ethernet cable into a Wi-Fi router. Rehearsing did not feel like rehearsing to me since I was still learning as I went along. When I join rehearsals with SuperContinent I get transported to another world and wherever I am physically at that point in time is insignificant. My surroundings merge with what is happening on the screen. I find rehearsals extremely rewarding — this was the first time I was able to make the music I had chosen to and not because I had to do it. What excites me the most about rehearsals is that the outcome is never the same as a previous rehearsal. There is always a curiousness for the process and the end product.
I love rehearsing at home. Pre-COVID, I used to rehearse in coffee shops. I loved sitting somewhere with my headphones with good food and a coffee, and jam with the SuperContinent members. Sometimes, people sitting near me would peek at my screen and then ask me questions about what I was doing. I really enjoyed these encounters with strangers, revolving around having the chance to share a little bit about live coding and the work with the ensemble.
Now, in COVID times, I’m rehearsing at home like everyone else. I really enjoy it. In my time zone, rehearsals are mid-afternoon, so they give me a nice break from work during the day. Sometimes, I plug in the sound system and share what we do in rehearsal with my roommate. With all the isolation going on, these rehearsals bring me some human contact and a way to be with others, sharing my love for music with others, even while staying home. I feel extremely grateful for this right now, as not many people, especially musicians, have the chance that we have to still make music together, even with the pandemic. It’s important to remember that, I think.
I love the opportunity to share and have rehearsals even though the rest of the world is stopping their activities. That is one of the main advantages of this kind of ensemble and the kind of tools we usually use.
Another thing that I consider to be an advantage is the possibility to have other activities running in parallel while we are at home having our rehearsals.
I love to listen to sound through speakers. However, the SuperContinent rehearsal is at 10:00 p.m. Japanese Standard Time and, as 9:00 p.m. is the latest I can use my speakers at home, I always rehearse with the ensemble using earphones or portable speakers. This makes the experience of sound in rehearsal quite a light experience for me, and instead I observe the syntax that shapes the sound more closely.
Even though the rehearsal sound experience is light, it has become important for me. Even before the pandemic, people don’t usually have the experience of hearing sound so loudly through speakers — that kind of sound is usually associated with advertising or big capitalistic things. But now, more than ever, I think people are using earphones, small speakers or the built-in speakers on their laptops. Since 2020, I have become more interested in what and how I can make things sound in such a setting, and my sound has changed accordingly. SuperContinent rehearsals are a time to confront such a light sound experience, but nowadays it’s a very universal — and in a sense “heavy” — sound experience.
I’ve always maintained a home studio and usually like to rehearse from there when not travelling. I’m the only musician in my immediate environment and most people around me don’t really get the idea of experimental music, so I’ve kept that part of my identity separate from most of my social life. Initially, I’d been rehearsing on my five-year-old laptop, which was always having a bit of a hard time keeping up with the performance load, especially when visualizations were enabled. Since this is the first time in maybe twelve years that I’ve not been travelling at least once a month, I’ve further tethered myself to a desk by setting up a fairly powerful desktop computer. In addition to finally having a large screen and a full-sized keyboard, this has been really helpful in sharing streaming duties with David when we do performances.
An almost universal experience of the ensemble, even for the more experienced live coders in the group, has been the ability to learn from each other as we play. The interface of Estuary, by its very nature, allows all users to read the code of other participants, and this facilitates learning in a number of ways.
It is especially useful for incoming members who may be learning how to live code for the first time, as they can learn about new Tidal functions they are exposed to during rehearsals and performances. More experienced members have also reported learning new ways to play with Tidal, Punctual and the other languages of Estuary, simply by watching others play.
Melandri, a newer member of SuperContinent, makes sure to pay special attention to new functions being used by the other members. During rehearsal she writes down all new functions that emerge and saves them for review at a later time. In her own practice away from the group rehearsals, she works on incorporating these functions into her own code.
For others, this process of reading, adapting and learning happens directly in the ensemble’s rehearsals. When Shelly sees functions she hasn’t used before in the code of others, she sometimes copies them into her own code, discovering how they work through applying them to her existing patterns and changing their parameters to organically explore how the function modifies her sound. This is a practice she learned through playing with Rohrhuber and de Campo’s Republic (Rohrhuber et al. 2007), a networked live coding library for SuperCollider, which actively encourages the copying and adapting of the code of your collaborators.
Beyond understanding the capabilities of a particular function, both of these learning processes facilitate group members in establishing their own processes of working with code. Being able to recognize and recall functions alone is not sufficient when attempting to write code during a rehearsal or performance, as the process of code editing and transitioning between functions and parameter values is also an important aspect of live coding practice. Reading the code of others allows participants to view and understand the processes of repeatedly editing and compiling code and how changes to the sound and code unfold in real time. Seeing multiple strategies and approaches to this at once through the Estuary interface is valuable for learning how to compile code in a systematic fashion as well as developing personal coding styles to suit personal preferences and ways of making music.
Another member, Chiho, who had never used Estuary before joining SuperContinent, pointed to opportunities beyond the ensemble to run live coding workshops using the platform. She is excited by its experience-oriented nature and the potential for long-distance workshopping, as being able to read, hear, copy and modify example code is of great value to newcomers.
Beyond learning how to manage the technical aspects of the Estuary interface, another important aspect of the ensemble for its members is learning and negotiating how to collaborate and work with each other. Collaborating in creation, improvisation, thinking and performance is a hugely rewarding activity. Navigating the balance between contributing, supporting, taking the lead, taking a step back, listening, being heard, leadership, followership, collectivity, etc. — all with respect, kindness and a sense of collective safeness — is a warm and meaningful experience for SuperContinent performers. It is a mode of being that extends beyond music and art making to everything we share in our communities and societies. It can also be seen as a mirror to our humanness. We can view the way we build new technologies as a form of world-building (Lim 2017), but we must also consider that how we operate within the new worlds we form is just as important.
Managing collaboration in larger groups can be a challenge and is in constant negotiation. Individual members need to navigate their position in the ensemble within the context of this whole. In SuperContinent this is a very dynamic situation, as new members are coming and leaving and the turnout for a given rehearsal is never guaranteed. In this sense, every rehearsal may be a unique set of people and require a negotiation of styles and practices. At first, this aspect may come across as a daunting task, especially to a newcomer; however, collaboration with others who have consideration for lack of experience provides support that is invaluable to the less experienced individual’s learning process.
In the large-scale format of the SuperContinent ensemble, a certain amount of awareness of what is happening in the overall context is required. The intense focus of live coding may lead to individual members tending to focus on detailed aspects of the sound and code, sometimes forgetting to sit back and consider their part of the performance within the context of the whole. Balancing this tension between detailed and contextual listening can be a significant challenge. In SuperContinent, performers are encouraged to sometimes just sit back and listen to the performance or rehearsal unfold, either because the situation allows them to step back or to facilitate the participation of others. Oscillating between actively participating and sitting back and listening also serves to allow us each time within a rehearsal to learn from each other.
Mynah feels, for example, that “being able to not only experience everyone’s music but also see the process happening on the screen for each one of us can be a great source of inspiration and a great way to learn from each other.” From another perspective, Melandri’s learning process impacted her role in the ensemble, but also as a performer outside of the project:
I have learned so much over the past year and I’ve learned so many different things. Some of these were obviously live coding, collaborating with others and actually learning how to enjoy performing — as a person who previously despised performing not only with others, but alone too. This platform has allowed me to grow as a collaborative and solo performer and has inspired me to embrace this new path I have been fortunate to experience. It helped me find my voice, so to speak, and has solidified my love for technology and learning even further. Rehearsals over the past year have been really rewarding in terms of learning how to navigate my position as a new member of SuperContinent. When I first joined the group, it was extremely challenging to focus on everything everyone was doing, but the more I rehearsed with everyone the easier it became.
Every weekly rehearsal starts with about half an hour of making music together, then proceeds to a group discussion in which the ensemble members share their improvisatory experience, technical considerations, creative ideas and suggested actions. This practice catalyzes an iterative transformational process in which collective improvisation and critical reflection complement and feed into each other. The collective creation process thus emerges both synchronously and asynchronously. Key performance practices that have evolved in the ensemble have been integrating audio-reactive visuals, a sample collection project that began in early 2020 and, more recently, our “strategies” document, which provides some additional æsthetic purpose in our improvisations.
Not all rehearsals are created equal. On some days, the ensemble may be quicker or slower in getting into a collective flow, improvising effectively and responsively, and generating sound and visuals that we are happy about. In post-rehearsal discussions — especially after rehearsals in which the ensemble’s cohesion felt low — we discussed the possibility of designing strategic perceptual entry points that could stimulate a stronger and quicker creative glue in our improvisation. The first such strategy — the “roulette”, a common live coding practice wherein people take turns modifying shared code, rather than focussing on “their own code” — was joyfully utilized in several SuperContinent rehearsals. Quickly, however, we felt ready to diversify our repertoire of improvisatory strategies and created a shared online document that allowed for multiple simultaneous editors, a “living document that’s open to everyone for adding ideas of how to play together” (Shelly).
The document contains short descriptive ideas that strategize the ensemble’s collective creation in diverse fashions — organizational, timbral, technical, mood-centred — always with a catchy title. 10[10. If these titles seem suspiciously familiar as movie titles, it is because many of them are. In an initial search for ideas, Eldad scanned through famous single-word movie titles to inspire potential live coding strategies in a free-association fashion, while simultaneously ensuring they have memorable, catchy names.] A few examples suffice as to show the nature of this growing and evolving collection:
- Virus. Beginning then copying codes from each other freely and mutating.
- Frozen. Ambient, long, attempting to avoid any cyclical / loop feel.
- Godspeed. Ridiculously high tempo (300 or above).
- Aliens. Thematically irregular, “strange” sounds and processes, abstract non-metric or poly-metric.
- Annihilation. Full, saturated textures in high bpm.
- Anarchy. There are no rules. Any perceived rules or restrictions that exist or arise should be subverted (Video 6).
The collection of strategic improvisatory entry points has been very useful in making rehearsals more purposefully exploratory. As Celeste testifies, “This is a very powerful idea, I love the names and how these strategies are described.” And Eldad:
Collective strategizing about creation is fun. I love the simplicity of taking a single concept — a word — and building a collaborative idea around it. Agreed-upon strategic goals and boundaries are effective shortcuts to artistic cohesion. They provide shared objectives and reference points for discussion. I also love the collective creation of documents because it extends the discussion and thinking together beyond the meeting times and allows better depth and longer-term creativity to take its course.
The Estuary platform has had the ability to synthesize completely original sounds for a while with Punctual, but not everyone is comfortable with learning yet another language, especially in a dynamic environment of an ensemble. In SuperContinent we discussed contributing a collective repository of sounds that could be explicitly public domain via the mechanism of CC0 licensing, waiving any and all restrictions on the rights of others to reuse the sounds. In mid- to late-2021, Estuary gained the ability to add banks of web-located samples to its collaborative ensembles, on-the-fly. SuperContinent’s CC0 sample library is now part of a growing ecosystem of Estuary-ready media collections, maintained independently by various individuals and groups.
To avoid any intellectual property conflicts, Eldad, Abhinay and Chiho produced custom samples using various techniques and approaches, including but not limited to synthesis, recordings and extreme sample manipulation to produce new sounds unrecognizable from their source. Eldad produced an extremely large collection of chords at different voicings organized uniformly by sample numbers. Abhinay recorded single hits as well as beats with an acoustic drum kit and cymbal combinations, played with various sticks, mallets, articulations and modifications such as tambourines, bells and shakers thrown on top of the playable surface. These were further processed with multiple distortion plugins and chopped into individual hits. The trio recorded a selection of blips and bloops from free synths (Helm, Zuper Zmall Zound Zynth) and SuperCollider patches by Chiho, and also sampled oddball sounds like blowing a nose, keys clinking and an infant in stages of glee. Chiho made various synth lines and arps from a Korg Monologue and Volca Modular.
It’s very common for one person in the group to take on the role of “visualist” during an improvisation. Usually that person is David, although he said that he would love to share or abandon that role more often. His technique is normally to live code a programme in the Punctual live coding language so that the resulting visuals are both synchronized to and audio-reactive with the musical output provided by the other members (Fig. 3).
Features of both Estuary as a whole and Punctual specifically make this synchronized audio-reactivity easy to achieve. One of the key items that are shared in collaborative ensembles in Estuary is a tempo grid — a representation in which the current tempo is a given frequency, and a specific numbered beat from an infinite series of such beats occurs at a given time in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). David developed Punctual as a language for synthesizing audio and visuals from the same code, with close attention to the temporal nature of live coding improvisation. The language provides notations for specifying how and when new programmes replace old ones, for example crossfading between old and new. A few notations built into Punctual give immediate access to analysis of the audio input and output.
Ensembles like SuperContinent raise the additional challenge of “screen real estate”. How to enable code and visuals to co-exist in a way that both can be perceived fully, at least some of the time, by ensemble members and audience is both an interface design and æsthetic challenge. A number of Punctual notations and practices help with this by facilitating basic strategies like not occupying the whole screen with generative visuals or blending into the text code more gradually instead of smothering it. Additionally, Punctual is highly suited to collaborative use — multiple Punctual programmes can share the screen with visual results blended, a possibility that SuperContinent could explore further in the future.
Punctual was used to create the visuals in a 19 March 2020 performance during the Eulerroom Equinox, a 72-hour online festival of live streamed and live coding performances subverted (Video 8).
SuperContinent has been supported by an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The Networked Imagination Laboratory, where Estuary development happens, was created with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation and the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University. Special thanks to Andrew Brown, Libertad Figueroa, Jessica Rodriguez and Miles Warrington, as well as to all the developers contributing to Estuary.
February 2021, April 2022
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