Coding is the new clubbing: on the rise and rise of algorave

Published in The Tribune on December 9, 2023

Legend has it that algorave was invented on the M1. It was 2011, and Alex McLean was driving to a gig with his friend Nick Collins; both live coders, they would make electronic music on stage in real time — effectively, writing instructions in code that tell a computer what sounds to play, in what order.

On the way to their show, they tuned into a local pirate station that was playing happy hardcore and inspiration struck: they would use algorithms to make their own version of rave music.

And lo, the algorave was born — a handy smashing together of two terms, that fellow live-coders quickly embraced and organised around.

As origin stories go, it’s cute, even if McLean, who performs under the name Yaxu, admits that it’s really a myth. “There’s some truth in it,” he smiles when I meet him in his studio next to Theatre Deli, “but we had for a while been trying to come up with a musical genre that would bring things together, as a community.”

Completely new movements in music are vanishingly rare, but algorave genuinely can lay a claim to not only being its own scene, but also its own musical step forward. Although, as McLean quickly acknowledges, it’s less of a musical genre, per se, and more of a practice. The thing that’s really unusual about an algorave event is how the music is made, not the kind of music it is.

If you were walked, blindfolded, into an algorave club night — apart from that being a deeply creepy thing to happen — you might not be aware that anything unusual was going on: your ears would be treated to the same repetitive beats any DJ might spin. But drop the blindfold and, rather than seeing a DJ presiding over decks, you’d see someone stood behind their laptop, tap-tapping away, writing code. And behind them, a projection of their computer screen, revealing what they’re writing as they write it: the streams of numbers and letters, that instruct the computer to play certain beats, sounds and samples, in certain patterns. 

Wrapping your head around algorithmic music isn’t necessarily easy for anyone who doesn’t understand computer programming. And, as someone who occasionally resorts to getting a calculator out when an Excel spreadsheet gets a bit complicated, it’s fair to say I’m approaching it from an embarrassingly low level of knowledge — but if I lack technical nous, at least I have enthusiasm.

I went to my first algorave in Sheffield in 2019, a year before I’d moved to the city, and had so much fun I woke up the next day with a broken foot: I blame the steep stairs in my friend’s terrace house, they reckon I just danced too hard. Which is a possibility; the music was loud, and fast, and intense, and the fact that it was all being written, live in front of me on a laptop, blew my tiny mind as well as quite possibly fracturing my metatarsal.

So when I meet McLean, who’s said he’ll give me a practical demo of how to write code, I ask him to define algorave for me in layman’s terms. “It’s not something I’m very good at…” he says, a touch regretfully. “Something like: ‘adding up numbers to make people dance?’ Or: ‘writing code to describe musical patterns?’ ‘Describing music with weird language…?’ Er, yeah.”

Luckily, I also have a zoom chat with another live-coder, Lucy Cheesman, who performs as Heavy Lifting as well as in a band, Epiploke, with McLean. “You can think of an algorave as a party,” she begins, reassuringly. “That’s a really easy starting point; we all know what parties are like, hopefully! People get together and dance to music, the only thing that’s maybe a little bit odd about it is that the music is made by performers generating code.”

For her, the live aspect of this process is part of what makes it so special. Sure, a good DJ is able to mix pre-existing tracks in an exciting new way but live coders are literally writing new beats, melodies and rhythms on the fly. She, like McLean, improvises on stage during a performance, building up tracks from scratch — think of it a bit like jazz improv, but for dance music. 

McLean had no previous music-making experience, while Cheesman used to be drummer, but both found live coding opened up new possibilities, beyond traditional ways of making music. Cheesman recalls being blown away by the immediacy of live coding, how you could “get to something that sounded really interesting, really quickly.” 

Cheesman also lives in Sheffield. and it’s fair to say the city is the spiritual home of this small musical movement. That’s largely thanks to McLean, who not only coined the name algorave but also literally created Tidal Cycles, the music-making software a lot of people use to live code. In the early days, everyone made their own software, but these days Tidal — which is free to download — is the go-to for many people who just want to crack on and make music, without needing to be programming experts.

Despite confessing to a spot of myth-making around the birth of the genre, McLean is actually a softly-spoken and distinctly modest man, who doesn’t seem to have any interest in bigging himself up as algorave’s founding father. He reminds me that Sheffield has “always punched above its weight” when it comes to experimental electronic music, pointing to antecedents like Sheffield bleep (a techno subgenre that emerged in the late 80s) and Warp Records, as well as noting the importance of the city’s small indie venues, labels and festivals.

It is left to Cheesman to underline the “huge effort” McLean himself puts into the scene. The gigs, workshops, and conferences he’s run have helped algorave to ripple far beyond Sheffield. As well as pockets in London, Bristol and Birmingham, there are thriving scenes as far afield as the Netherlands, Mexico, Tokyo and New York.

Algorave is certainly growing in popularity; when Cheesman started, she was the only woman using Tidal in the whole country and reckons she could have named most algorave artists, something that would be impossible today. That said, it is still pretty damn niche: scenes tend to be small, there are no breakout algorave stars, and the concept of people making music on their laptops still undeniably sounds off-puttingly nerdy to many.

“You can’t stand up and be ‘I’m the head live coder, with millions of Instagram followers’. Nobody’s cool, and nobody is really successful,” acknowledges Cheesman cheerfully.

You might think that such a small scene would tend towards the cliquey or exclusive, but that doesn’t seem to be the case — or at least, not here, anyway. And algorave was founded on a specific, stated ethos of openness. “Open process, open minds” is one of several points on a very early live coding manifesto McLean co-wrote in 2000.

This principle of openness applies both to how the music is made, and to the wider ideals of the scene. So, the software used to make music must always be free and open source, and people are strongly encouraged to share their process in live performances, hence projecting the code on a screen for all to see. 

“It’s kind of anti-copyright,” says McLean. “The focus on free/open source software, and live improvisation, also runs against hyper commercialism of music-as-product, instead celebrating music-as-activity and music-as-culture.”

But this openness also extends to an egalitarian community-building: collectively-written guidelines for holding an algorave include principles such as “Collapsing hierarchies” and “Diversity in lineups and audiences”. From making sure workshops are friendly towards people with absolutely zero coding experience to holding space for underrepresented groups, there’s been a very intentional effort to make algorave an idealistically non-hierarchical environment, as far as possible. 

All of which is important because, as Cheesman acknowledges, the communities algorave grew out of — music production and computer programming — aren’t famously the most friendly or accessible. “Computer programming can be male-dominated and snobby, and music production has its own toxicities and problems. So it has been a conscious effort to not just allow [algorave] to become lots of white tech bros, and no one else feels comfortable.”

She tells me that people have made a real effort in growing the scene inclusively:  booking diverse line-ups, running workshops that are just for women or just for black people. “Everyone works really hard to create an environment that feels welcoming: it is easy to come from nowhere and start doing this,” she concludes.

In fact, she’s a good example of that: Cheesman began live coding in 2016 after going to a workshop for women, hosted by the Yorkshire Sound Women Network in Huddersfield. After starting to play around with Tidal, she went up to McLean at an algorave to tell him how much she was enjoying it — and he basically immediately booked her to play a gig.

All of which makes me fantasise about whether I, too, could make my own algorithmic dance music. McLean promises me it’s “very accessible,” — he’s done workshops with eight-year-olds where they’re performing by the end of an hour. Which bodes well, because I think the last time I programmed anything was using LOGO to move a turtle robot around in primary school.

McLean has also, handily, recently developed a super-accessible version of Tidal Cycles called Strudel: it opens in a web browser, and includes little tutorials in how to code in JavaScript, meaning anyone can instantly have a play around. It’s completely free and, as it turns out, rather addictive: follow this link and be prepared to say farewell to your weekend.

Sat at his desk in a small studio, its floor snaked with cables and its surfaces dotted with evidence of other algorithmic research projects, from dancing robots to code-driven weaving, McLean runs through live coding basics with me. There are really two elements, he explains: notation, and manipulation.

He shows me how to write a quick line of code that will establish our first rhythm: a series of bass drum and snare drum beats, indicated thusly: sound(“bd sd bd sd”). This is one cycle, and it will repeat, going round infinitely, until you delete it or change it. This cyclical form of musical notation is pretty different to our usual linear Western system, and is actually based on a transcription system for Indian tabla drums. “It’s a different way of thinking of music,” acknowledges McLean.

Once you’ve got a pattern you like, you can mess about with it — adding instructions to repeat sections, play elements faster or slower, changing the order… Quickly, these instructions — known as ‘transformations’ — do things vastly more complicated than the human brain can really imagine or predict.

And this is where the ‘liveness’ truly comes into live coding — there is a gigantic element of surprise. You rarely know exactly what the music is going to sound like after you’ve tinkered with the code, or how it’s going to develop after a certain number of loops.

Sometimes, it sounds incredible. And sometimes, it sounds absolutely awful.

“Each thing you add is really simple in its own right, but when you add two simple transformations you always get a complex result. Performing live is riding that edge,” McLean says. “There’s no built-in limits, so it can get a bit out of control.”

As McLean and I tinker with the code he’s quickly whipped up, he shows me how to complicate it — those drum beats chopped up into eight bits, then played in reverse out of one speaker but not the other, to disorienting effect. I ask if he can chop the different beats up by different amounts, to further vary it.

“I could do… it would be a bit tricky!” He laughs, and types a bunch of letters and numbers I don’t remotely understand, and then says “yeah, that’s interesting actually, good idea.”

I feel disproportionally pleased to have contributed something, and would probably here puff myself up as some kind of algorave innovator, except that, if I’m honest, I can’t really hear the difference by this point: the beats have torqued into such a strange and abstract realm, far from the recognisable bass-drum-snare-drum we started with. These sluggish, crunchy metallic noises sound more like a shunting distant factory line than something you could drop at a rave.  

When I express some reservations, McLean is quick to remedy it — adding a kick drum, shifting its pitch, adding a breakbeat — and it’s amazing how swiftly he wrenches things back into the territory of “something you can dance to.”

In my own fiddling around on Strudel, my progress naturally isn’t quite as swift. In fact, it’s grindingly slow. Quite a lot of what I make sounds like one of those old modems trying to connect to the internet. I become briefly obsessed with making a sample of crow’s cawing work over a series of cowbell donks, but it just sounds like demented horror movie soundtrack. I think it’s fair to say I won’t be lighting up Sheffield’s algorave scene any time soon, but the immediacy of this way of making music nonetheless proves distinctly good fun.

And there’s something deeply appealing about the fact that unpredictability and imperfection is actually expected, not just in newbies but in seasoned pros too. While some live-coders — increasing numbers, in fact — now plan what they’re going to play out in advance and deliver a polished set of only the stuff that really works, many others like McLean and Cheesman continue to improvise entirely on the night, embracing this unknowability.

When the two of them play together, they get double the fun: writing code together, able to alter or build on each other’s contributions. “Like GoogleDocs, where you and a colleague work on a document together: it’s exactly the same principle,” Cheesman says, helpfully.

It must be really exciting, I suggest, when you type in a transformation and aren’t sure how it will sound — and then it sounds absolutely banging. “Yeah it’s a real thrill,” says Cheesman. “One of the things I really enjoy about live coding performances is that unexpected element — ‘that sounds a little different than I thought it would, but I like it, let’s follow that direction…’ And sometimes it doesn’t come together, and it can be really funky and crap!”

She sounds remarkably calm about the idea of things going wrong in front of a live audience. But apparently, and rather sweetly, this is part of algorave’s DNA: audiences get it. If the music suddenly sounds jarring or off, you will likely immediately be able to see the performer frantically deleting code, writing new code, trying to improve it, the process of revision all up there on the big screen in front of you. “It’s a space where an imperfect performance is not only tolerated but actually welcomed, it’s part of the ethos,” says Cheesman.

Even total technological meltdown is embraced: while the software these days is pretty reliable, it often used to crash completely — something audiences relished, apparently. “Crashes can be really nice,” says McLean. “It makes things more authentic somehow, the whole audience is rooting for you.”

Well, the more informed audiences, at least: I didn’t realise till playing with the software just how unpredictable live-coding could be, and have, perhaps, been a not-so-generous crowd member when sets have seemed to disappear up their creator’s own fundament. It’s also worth pointing out that not everyone has McLean’s commitment to danceability; algorave can get pretty abstract, abrasive, and out-there, pretty quickly. Events I’ve been to have certainly had a chin-scratching element: lots of people standing still and nodding, in intellectual appreciation of glitchy noise.

But for anyone who assumed that music made by algorithms might be a little cold, this unpredictability adds a further flawed humanness to proceedings. And McLean insists that live coding is in fact a “celebration of human craft over machine automation… It seems like there is a contradiction in programmers being against automation — but we don’t want to automate creativity, we want to use computers to make new creative materials.”

And the connective tissue between crafting and technology is something McLean is more widely interested in. He’s in the midst of a funded research project exploring algorithmic patterns in things like choreography, textiles, and heritage crafts as well as in creative coding, and has set up a Pattern Club in Sheffield.

A regular meet-up, as well as an umbrella organisation now running live events and algoraves at venues across the city, Pattern Club’s aim is to “broaden how we think of algorithmic art”, McLean says. If an algorithm is a set of rules or instructions for making something, then many crafts can be included in that definition too. 

So Pattern Club’s workshops might be on live coding, but they might also be on knitting, weaving, or basket-making. Which will be a new way of thinking about such things, for many of us, I imagine: I’d certainly never considered the slightly lumpy jumpers or baby hats I’ve knitted following a pattern as existing in the same category as a live coded techno set…

Both McLean and Cheesman acknowledge that they are still mostly getting men for the programming workshops and women for the textile ones — those pesky gender norms proving depressingly stubborn. But for Cheesman, the nice thing about Pattern Club events is that they do further open up their niche scene.

They help “break down the idea that we’re all tech whizzes, with PhDs in computational music, or that an algorithm is a nasty thing facebook has created to steal your data,” she says. Algorithms could, instead, be a knitting pattern – or a friendly way to write music that makes you dance all night long.

Epiploke play at the next Pattern Club Live, at Theatre Deli, 17 December (patternclub.org).

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