Giovanni Mori’s fascination with live coding started in the vicinity of Florence, Italy. Makery met with the author of the book “Live Coding? What does it mean?” to discuss this relatively new form of music-making. He talks about live coding vs. hacking, computer software, clubbing, and above all: What does it take to become a live coder?
Makery: What was your first encounter with the live coding scene?
Giovanni Mori: My first encounter with the concept of live coding was during the research I did for my MA thesis on Pietro Grossi, when I was searching for experiences in computer music similar to the one developed by the Italian musician, around 2010. After that, I watched videos online, and my interest obviously grew and grew.
How did you become interested in live coding academically?
In early 2017 I focused my Phd thesis on live coding seen mainly as a social practice, but with an important analysis of its improvisational nature. My path to get there started from the first years of university studies, first in Pisa and then in Cremona. Both cities are famous for unique aspects that can be related to live coding: Pisa is the hometown of Leonardo Fibonacci and Galileo Galilei, two of the most important innovators in the field of scientific research; while Cremona is famous for music and the hometown of Stradivari, an absolute innovator in the field of instrument-making. So together, the two cities may represent the most salient characteristic of live coding: a discipline that unites art and maths into a groundbreaking innovation in the way that music is played and the instrument is used to produce sound.
Were you interested in the electronic music scene before?
In Cremona, I developed my interest for a very eclectic character in the contemporary Italian music scene of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s: Pietro Grossi. I decided to write my MA thesis on his work as an experimental computer musician. During this research phase, I stumbled upon a notion that the live coding discipline is similar to Grossi’s approach to computer music—he even saw himself as a forerunner. After my PhD work, I started to collaborate with varoius institutions (Tempo Reale, Umanesimo Artificiale, INDIRE) to promote awareness of live coding in Italy. I’ve organized workshops, concerts, developed educational projects, and I published my first book on live coding.
The title of your book “Live Coding? What does it Mean?” suggests that this art form is rather unknown among musicologists. What is your definition of live coding?
Yes, it takes a while to reach a sort of general definition of live coding. And, worst of all, this definition does not help very much in understanding the complexity and reactive nature of the phenomenon. In fact, live coding is very multifaceted and may include different contexts, techniques, software, devices, peripherals… So it’s hard to reach a comprehensive definition without being too general. Even the term “live coding” itself has only recently been established to identify the practice, as there are many other less used definitions, such as live programming, on-the-fly programming and so on, with slightly different meanings. My definition of live coding is: an improvisation practice in which the code is written live, in front of a public that can be present in different forms, either online or offline.
When did people start to dance to computer codes?
It is hard to determine an exact day when people started to dance to computer codes. Actually, CDs and recorded music in general (in particular music recorded from the 1990s on) is produced using computer software, so they are technically the fruit of computer code. However, regarding the practice of live coding, the first examples of events that invited people to dance emerged in early 2000s with the performances of Alex Mclean, Ge Wang, Nick Collins and others. Then in the early 2010s, parties where dance music was produced using computer algorithms written live became more structured into parties called Algoraves. If I remember well, the first Algorave was organized by Alex Mclean and Nick Collins in 2011 in London.
Algoraves are a relatively new form of event where we can see and hear live coding happening ‘in situ’…
Algoraves and live coding are not synonyms, but Algoraves are part of the live coding context. There are live coding events that are not Algoraves. And yes, the nature of the Algorave requires that it happens in real-space: there is no point in dancing alone without sharing the experience with others in the same moment that it is happening.
And as a live experience?
My first experience attending a live coding event was during a symposium organized by the University of Sussex, in Brighton, where I went to gather more information for my PhD research in July 2014. It was called “Live Coding and the Body” and discussed the role and the implications (and applications actually) of the performer’s body in live coding practice. The symposium delved into this subject from many different points of view: the use of peripherals, interaction with the code, body limits to interact with a computer interface and so on. It was so illuminating that I decided to continue my research on live coding in that university by spending about a year as a Visiting Research Student with the support of Dr. Thor Magnusson, one of the most important figures in the live coding scene, both as thinker and as performer.
I imagine the live coding scene is not a homogenous art form. Did you notice any trends or different streams within a live coding community?
Yes, the term live coding encompasses many different art forms. In fact, more than a genre, I would define it as a performative technique, a sort of tool that artists may use in different contexts. Many people usually identify live coding as an Algorave or similar setting, but there are also live coded poetry, live coded dance performances and also “jazzy” live coded music. So, I would say that the most “populated” stream in the live coding community is dance, techno and derived musical genres, as there were plenty of events of this kind at the moment, or at least before, the pandemic started.
You spent some time in the United Kingdom for your research, but how is the live coding scene in your homeland of Italy? Can you compare the Italian scene to other, more outspoken live coding scenes?
In Italy, the scene is small but lively and slowly growing. There are some very active groups in Milan, Turin, Rome, as well as some independent live coders. Some institutions are supporting the scene, such as Tempo Reale in Florence, with which I am collaborating to organize workshops, events, concerts. There are also some associations that promote live coding and, in general, arts related to digital culture: Umanesimo Artificiale, which I mentioned before, Algoritmi in Turin, Amen in Rome. However, it is hard to compare the community in Italy to the ones based somewhere else, because the relationships among all the global communities are very strong. Italy is just a node in the global community network, and there are cross influences among all these nodes.
Is there a particular ‘faux pas’ in the live coding communities? What should you never do as a live coder?
The live coding community is open, egalitarian and horizontal. So a proper live coder should never forget that he/she is part of a bigger group of pairs that do not discriminate against others based on gender, ethnicity, culture in general. Then, if you want to define yourself as a live coder, you obviously have to use the live coding practice in some way during your performances, but I also think you should avoid behaving in a way that does not respect diversity and that excludes other people. A live coder should share his or her work with the other members of the community and help others in learning and advancing in their practices.
Is there a relationship between hacking and live coding?
With live coding, you do something that is not ‘useful’ in a capitalist way of making things. Live coding is not applied to the production of objects (both physical and virtual) that can be sold, at least not in this phase of its development. Live coders are very focused on the open-source and free software side of the barricade in the computer field. In general, the same side of the barricade is occupied by the hackers. As I discuss in my book, it seems that hackers anticipated many concepts that were later appropriated by live coders. Some live coders define their activity as something that hacks music, or at least the process of making it, and I agree with this definition.
What do you think the future holds for live coding as an art form? More new programming languages, or more of a uniform approach to live coding?
I am not very good at foreseeing the future! I can only say that I am seeing some softwares establishing themselves as standards in the community, while others are becoming less and less common. However, some new others are emerging, so the community is still bubbling, and who knows where this process is heading. Probably this focus on developing is just a phase due to the pandemic, which has forced everyone to remain in their country of residence and to avoid organizing concerts and performances, unless they’re online. There are some online concerts, but they are a different cultural product from the in-presence live concerts. Everyone is waiting for the end of this bad situation, where they are probably more focused on activities that don’t require a physical co-presence with the public.
Would you say that one needs to be a musical composer to become a live coder, or rather a programmer?
As Sam Aaron always states during his seminars, to become a live coder you just have to do three things: practice, practice, practice. There are many very simple and well-documented languages for live coding, with a very steep learning curve. You can learn to use them quickly: in a couple of hours you can learn how to compose a simple track on Sonic Pi, Tidalcycles or Foxdot. The hardest part of live coding is performing the music live. So, practice is what you need to learn and to embody the necessary commands and parameters in such a way that you can recall them on the fly during a performance without thinking too much. Therefore, a skill that can help with live coding, more than being a composer or a programmer, is to be an improviser in some art field.
Have you yourself ever considered becoming a live coder?
Yes, many times! I practiced for some time with Sonic Pi and posted some experiments online. But I did not follow Aaron’s advice stated above, for lack of time or maybe lack of perseverance, so I remained at a very amateur level. The same happened with other instruments like guitar, piano and accordion: I practiced them for some time, then I moved on to something else. I think it is a trait of my personality: I love music, but I do not feel I will be able to create something interesting, so I quickly lose the motivation to go on. I am working on this bad side of myself!
DOMMUNE – “Yorkshire vs. Tokyo Live Coding Showdown” (2018):
More information on TOPLAP
More information on algorithmic music (Handbook published by Oxford University Press)
Giovanni Mori, Live Coding? What does it mean? An Ethnographical Survey on an Innovative Improvisational Approach, Aracne, 2020.