In 2017, algorithms are everywhere.
They determine the news we see, the music we stream, the advertisements we’re served and the very means through which we communicate and access information on a daily basis.
And it’s not just our online experience that’s underpinned by algorithms. E-commerce giant Amazon’s recent foray into creating brick-and-mortar bookstores exemplifies how a physical storefront might privilege big data over curatorial authority — displaying stock by regional purchase trends and collective ratings rather than staff selections, for instance.
Critics will look on it as an extension of the social media “echo chamber” paradigm, its ideology transcending even the boundaries of online platforms — convenience over exploration, familiarity over fortuity. The vice president of Amazon Books calls it “data with heart.”
For Tokyo-based computer musician Renick Bell, however, algorithms don’t just inform the output, they’re inseparable from it. Bell makes his music through a custom live-coding system in which he manipulates rhythms and patterns in real time, typing in text-based instructions as he draws from a library of tens of thousands of samples.
“When you’re playing guitar or drums or any physical, acoustic instrument, it’s all about gestures — how you hit it, the strength, the angle, all of that,” he says. “But when you start writing code you’re not making music with physical gestures anymore; it’s like it has all become symbolic, so you’re manipulating symbols.”
Bell’s generative music-making process draws on myriad influences: the avant-garde electroacoustics of John Cage and the mathematical techniques of stochastic music, free jazz and improvisation. One of his algorithms for generating rhythm patterns is even based on a theory that explains the growth of plants. But despite its weighty conceptual foundations, the output is raw, percussive, and ranges from being disorienting to, at times, incredibly danceable. It’s no surprise that it caught the attention of forward-thinking British electronic producer Lee Gamble, a long-standing custodian of fringe “dance” music, who recently released Bell’s “Empty Lake” EP on his UIQ imprint.
And it’s in these club-ready sonic flourishes that we begin to get a feel for the man behind the code — a man who swapped metal shows in West Texas for raves in New York, who left America for Southeast Asia after the dot-com bubble burst and began dedicating his free time to producing drum ‘n’ bass tracks.
“One guy at a show recently asked me, ‘You’re sampling “Amens,” right?,'” Bell says, alluding to the “Amen break” sample that’s ubiquitous throughout beat-oriented music. “But any ‘Amens’ you hear are completely accidental. It’s just generated by the software. And partly because I’ve coded it, some similar rhythms — because I like that stuff — will come out, but they’re not even loop-sampled, everything in there is single hits. Sometimes they end up sounding like ‘Amens,’ because that’s one of my tastes.”
Reverse-engineering Bell’s tracks to identify subtle human inflections in the code is all well and good, but there’s a much more direct route to the source. Inspired by an article by British musician Alex McLean titled “Hacking Perl in Nightclubs” (referring to a programming language), Bell found himself interested in the algorave movement — events where people dance to algorithmically generated music, written and projected on-screen in full view of the audience — and it’s at these events that you can see performers such as Bell most clearly operate at the intersection between human and machine.
Watching a live coding performance, even as someone completely unversed in programming language, is a fascinating experience. At first, the visual elements are as disorientating as the music itself: musical references like “kick,” “drum,” “stab” and “perc” are the only comprehensible linguistic fragments in a sea of data. Before long, the actual instructions being inputted become the clear focus for spectators — numbers and words being typed and deleted in real-time and the relationship between the text-based actions and the audio become more and more apparent. The process creates a direct connection between audience and artist where performativity is stripped down into the simplest cause-and- effect dynamic. It’s a far cry from stadium-friendly dance music, where “performance” means pyrotechnics and personalities.
“I think it would be super interesting to see what people are doing in Ableton — even a DJ who’s just using Traktor, personally, I’d like to see what they’re doing,” Bell says referring to two popular pieces of software. “I’d like to see how they organize their record box, all the stuff that they’re doing, it’s interesting. I’m surprised more people don’t do it — even if it’s just a small screen off to the side.”
His comments reflect an overarching tenet of the algorave movement: to raise awareness of what code does for us — not just in regards to the simultaneously elegant and complex craftsmanship it represents, but also how it is now intertwined into all aspects of society.
“Live coding teaches you to be aware of the process,” Bell says. “Showing people this is what I’m doing, this is the process — it might sound like a machine, it might sound robotic, but at its core it’s human, so think about the humans that are making choices for you.
“There are people who might say ‘Algorithms are flawed’ or ‘We shouldn’t be using algorithms,’ and that’s a Luddite’s view. My message is don’t be afraid of the algorithms, be afraid of the people who are controlling the algorithms. People need to be aware that it’s not exactly faceless, it’s not without human intention — there is a lot of human intention built into it.”
In science-fiction author William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer,” artificial intelligence constructs Joseph Cornell-style boxes that are even better than the American artist’s originals, demonstrating a future in which even the labor of art can be automated by machines. With his own generative system potentially foreshadowing a future in which both the act of music-making itself and any subsequent curation could be outsourced to artificial intelligence, what does Bell make of the prospect?
“I would say the real artist is the person who’s making the robots,” he replies.
What is ‘algorave’?
Coined in 2012 by British academics and musicians Alex McLean and Nick Collins, “algorave” is a term used to refer to rave-style events where people dance to music exclusively generated from algorithms, and created in systems such as Max/MSP, SuperCollider and TidalCycles. Other artists operating within the algorave movement include McLean’s band, Slub, and British composers Shelly Knotts and Joanne Armitage (who perform together as Algobabez), while electronic music heavyweights like Autechre and Aphex Twin have also used algorithmic approaches for their productions in the past.