Percussa micro super signal processor

Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools from Stephen Ramsay on Vimeo.

In an extended video that begins with Radio City’s Rockettes and kettle drum players, Stephen Ramsay explains a litany of technology’s most elusive topics, in terms anyone could understand — no, really. I dare you to ask anyone to watch a few clips of this video, regardless of whether they’re regular readers of this site. Secrets such as why the programming language Lisp inspires religious devotion, or how someone in their right mind would ever consider programming onstage as a form of musical performance, represent the sort of geekery that would seem to be the domain of an elite. But in the dry deadpan of this Professor of English, those mysteries actually begin to dissolve.

I love the title: “Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools.”

I doubt very seriously that live coding is the right performance medium for all computer musicians. (I expect I’ve occasionally made people wince with a couple of lines of code in a workshop example; I shudder to think of scripting in front of an audience. I’d probably be less disastrous at stand-up comedy.) But Ramsay reveals what live coding music is. It’s compositional improvisation, and code simply lays bare the workings of the compositional mind as that process unfolds. Not everyone will understand the precise meaning of what they see, but there’s an intuitive intimacy to the odd sight of watching someone type code. It’s honest; there’s no curtain between you and the wizard.

That should be a revelation about other computer music performance instruments, even the MPC. They, too, bring in elements that are as compositional as they are about performance (though the MPC has the unique power to be both at the same time). And sometimes, it’s seeing the naked skeleton of that process that allows audiences back into the performance.

The live-coding composer in question is Andrew Sorensen, who has live-coded an orchestra and does, indeed, also use samplers in the tradition of Akai. Whether you do it in front of an audience or not, you can try his gorgeous Impromptu music language, among other tools.

If you’re messing with code at all, even just to make an occasional bleep in Csound or picture in Processing, it’s worth watching Stephen’s videos. In fact, if you compose at all, it might be worth watching. (See also his reflections on writing, programming, and algorithm.) After all, even someone strumming out a tune on an acoustic guitar and scratching the results on paper is using some sorts of algorithms.

This video has been out for a few months, but I sometimes wonder how we got into the business with blogs of posting stories with expiration dates in the hours. It’s like buying milk in Manhattan.

Thanks to Philip Age for the tip.