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.

Livecode.NYC, New York’s live code community co-founded by Jason Levine, Dr. Kate Sicchio, Ramsey Nasser and Tom Murphy started its humble beginnings on Sicchio’s kitchen counter (according to Nasser) and since 2016, Livecode.NYC has been a haven for live coders in and around New York. I have personally witnessed the growth and diversity of this niche form of tech art, and new faces seem to appear at every other meetup. To get to the source of what new live coders feel and think, I created a short questionnaire asking newcomers about their introduction to live coding, what their first performance was like and what they think of the community, among other questions. I then sent it out to the Livecode.NYC email list. Fourteen people responded and the feedback was amusing, relatable, and to a certain extent, poetic.

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?”

Out of fourteen respondents, eight said that they were introduced to live coding through a friend, four reported that attending an Algorave or a live performance inspired them to pursue live coding, one discovered live coding through watching a video online, and one attended a workshop on live coding at the School for Poetic Computation. When asked “How likely are you to recommend live coding to a friend?”, all of the respondents said that they would recommend live coding to a friend, and an overwhelming majority of people said that they were “very likely” to recommend live coding to a friend. According to Levine, the organization began as five members, grew slowly in 2016 and 2017 and nearly doubled in 2018 and again in 2019. He attributes the growth to workshops, doing bigger shows, and the increasing global recognition of live coding in the press, including a recent article in the New York Times that spotlights some of Livecode.NYC’s members.
pic3
f00f (left) and Zach Krall (right) at Wonderville, Brooklyn. Photo by Sarah Groff Hennigh-Palermo
Whether it’s performing an Algorave for the first time (or even the hundredth time), nervousness and excitement have the ability to possess performers or even cripple them. However, the relief and sense of reward that comes after performing a live code set makes it worthwhile. As Chirag Davé, a software engineer explains it, his first time performing in front of an audience was “scary but liberating. Especially when you get into the groove of it and surprise yourself”. Zach Krall, a student at Parsons School of Design who has been live coding for over a year-and-a-half, wrote:  “I was very nervous but ultimately felt that everyone was excited and interested in learning more about something that I was also learning too. Nobody seemed to talk down on it or dismiss it as ‘so obvious’ which I feel like happens a lot in other tech spaces.”

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.”

As a musician myself, I can relate to Anna’s experience with live coding for the first time. The practicality that comes with live coding is liberating; lugging instruments to a gig becomes a distant memory. Sumanth Srinivasan, a guitarist and software engineer, looked everywhere for a drummer to play with and felt that drum machines would not be up to par with the music he makes. So he turned to live coding: “[it] gives an excellent mid point between the reliability of using a computer on stage, as well as the human-like dynamics that can be coded on the spot depending on how you’re feeling.” Both Anna and Sumanth walk along the fence between musician and programmer, but most people who are introduced to live coding come from a computer programming background or have dabbled in other coding environments. Take Leonardo Foletto for example, a freelance software developer, sound designer and multimedia artist. Foletto started experimenting with live patching in Max/MSP, and tried to “create interesting drones” with varying results until he explored other coding languages such as Tidal and Hydra. For David Stein, an entrepreneur, “Live coding is a reminder that there is an artist behind the code that the computer is running.”
pic4
Sidney San Martín (left) and Melody Loveless (right) at Babycastles, NYC. Photo by Emi Spicer

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.”

pic5
Live code duo Koala Tokki (Yeseul Song & Michael Simpson) at Mana Contemporary, New Jersey. Photo by Tiri Kananuruk

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.”

So how do people feel about the New York live code scene? Do the newcomers feel a sense of community and acceptance, since the tech world is notorious for its lack of diversity and acceptance? The answers to this question amounted to a resounding “yes” as people described the impression Livecode.NYC left on them. They feel supported by others, that the organization is diverse, and they feel that there is a strong sense of community. One respondent noted that in general, it is rare to find a space that allows for experimental structures without professional agendas. However, there is always room for improvement. We could use a bit more organization and leadership to expand our opportunities, one respondent suggested. Personally, I would have to agree with this suggestion, as the numbers in attendance continue to grow annually. We need structure to make things happen. In time, we will become more organized, I’m sure.

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.