the burgeoning live code scene in New York City
by May Cheung
Welcome to New York, the hub of all things creative, corporate, strange and eye-opening. Whenever I talk about live coding to my musician friends, they often cock their heads to one side and ask, “what’s that?”. I then begin to explain, with enthusiasm, the mystery that is live coding.
Although the questionnaire yielded a low number of responses, it still gave me insight into the trials, tribulations and joys that these live coders experienced. I wanted to focus on how the community is growing, so the first question in the survey was: “How did you get into live coding?”
Then there’s the rare occasion where live coders fail epically – so we think: one anonymous creative technologist said that his computer crashed four times during his set, only to be met with applause at the end of it. Conversely, in the comfort of one’s own space, some report live coding for the first time as hypnotic and joyful. Anna L., who has been live coding for approximately one month, explains:
“I come from a self-taught musician background (piano, guitar, a little [bit of] accordion/banjo) and I felt like a kid in a candy store. All the muscle memory that is crucial to my feeling of freedom and flight on analog musical instruments (which requires practice) didn’t necessarily apply with livecoding – the only thing that mattered was the accumulation of knowledge and instinct.”
People arrive at live coding from all walks of life. So I wondered what new live coders thought about live coding as a medium and how it differs from traditional forms of art. Why live code visuals when you could just paint or use VJ software? Why live code music when you could just play an instrument or use other music software?
For Melody Loveless, a prolific live code musician who uses Sonic Pi as her main language:
“Livecoding music with Sonic Pi has allowed me to express form and process in real time and on the fly in a way that aligns well with my minimalist tendencies. Livecoding tools, like Sonic Pi and Hydra, have also enabled me to express myself quickly and with minimal set-up.”
Charlie Kramer, an economist, enjoys the freedom in expressing his unique sound in a way that only live coding allows for:
“Live coding gives me the ability to create sounds from scratch rather than from someone else’s ideas, prepackaged. In this way it’s a lot more expressive than music software or standard musical instruments. I can use code to create new musical instruments that play themselves or interact with each other according to rules that I give them. I can get sounds to evolve in highly nonlinear and unpredictable ways.”
Maxwell Neely-Cohen, a novelist from Washington, D.C., argues that there is no difference:
“I would say that all music is coding. Sheet music is one of the original programming languages, a transcribed set of coded instructions. Playing any musical instrument is just as inscrutable to a non-player as writing code is. So I guess I’m saying, I don’t see the distinction really.”
The survey I created gave me a glimpse into what people are feeling about the scene, and most importantly, it begs the question: how are other people discovering live coding and how do they feel about it? There is no doubt that live coding is gaining popularity among programmers and non-programmers alike. Whether it’s through word-of-mouth, seeing a show, or discovering it randomly on the internet, people are getting to know what live coding is. New York’s live code scene and community is burgeoning. “Increasingly, people from outside of New York City are interested in what we’re doing and are making our meetups a part of their visits to New York or even planning their visits around our meetups” says Nasser, host of Livecode.NYC’s bi-weekly gatherings. And who knows, we might see you at our next meeting ;)
UPDATE: This article was written pre-Coronavirus, all meetups are now online! Join us on Discord.
*Word cloud in title image created by Jason Levine, based on answers from my survey.
About the author
May Cheung is a musician, live coder and music educator based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the lead singer for the live code duo Scorpion Mouse and has presented her paper “Reflections On Live Coding As A Musician” at ICLC in 2019. She is currently working on her live code project under the alias CHIVE, with a single due for release in Fall 2020.