So different, genuinely fun: Exploring 10 years of algorave
10 years deep, the live coding movement has grown from an outsider practice to an established mode of music making. Niamh Ingram explores algorave's evolution and how it might move into the future
“I go to meetings and events now, and ask if people know what algorave is. They go ‘Yeah!’. Like wow — six years ago…” says Antonio Roberts, before tailing off into a bemused chuckle that indicates this knowledge was not commonplace until relatively recently. He live codes both music and visuals under the alias hellocatfood, and is a longstanding member of the algorave community, which is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary at Corsica Studios in London and a variety of other events worldwide.
Algorave, in short, is a live coding practice to create and showcase music to an audience, often as an audiovisual experience thanks to the heavy emphasis on immersive visuals to accompany the performances. The beats created by the coder can vary massively, from drum ‘n’ bass one minute to four-to-the-floor the next. This blend of innovation and unpredictability is a fascinating, visceral experience to behold.
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Lately, there appears to have been a significant increase in the levels of interest in algorave as people recognise its coexistence in the electronic music sphere with other methods of making music. It is no longer a new, novel phenomenon: simply another approach of creation for those willing to explore paths beyond go-tos like Ableton or Logic.
A decade on from its origins, algorave is a fully-fledged musical movement that is ripe for analysis and exploration. Just how has algorave evolved over the years in its development from an outsider practice to an established method of creation? What changes have those involved in the scene for some time recognised, and how do they feel about it?
Social media has been a big factor for change, resulting in an influx of new faces within the community. One key figure and advocate for social media benefitting the movement is DJ_Dave. Having garnered over 11 thousand followers on TikTok and over 100,000 total likes on her videos, her digital growth has resulted in playing at in-person events, such as Live Code NYC.
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“I think social media and the internet in general has greatly benefited all niche communities because it allows like-minded people to connect regardless of location,” she explains. “For me, social media has also been a great place for me to show my process, since live coding is so much about process. In doing this, I also hope it exposes more people to the art of live coding and could be used as a learning tool for them. I really value the live performance experience of live coding too, and social media has been a great tool for showing people what that live performance could look like whilst spreading the word about events.”
And while live performances in the clubbing sphere have only resumed relatively recently, algorave adapted and found its own ways to continue the party: such as the online club.
“I think with the response to the pandemic, there has been a rise in streaming events, which can be a more accessible model for some,” explains live coder digital selves - aka Lizzie Wilson - who got involved with the algorave scene while based in Yorkshire six years ago. “There have been some experiments with virtual environments that have been really exciting to watch and be a part of. Especially during the early era of the pandemic, going to online clubs became more prevalent and that was a really unorthodox way of keeping this feeling of connection across borders.”
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That represents a reactive step of algorave moving in order to shift with the times, but Wilson also makes the observation that change is often unconscious and not recognised until after it has occurred.
“As with most musical scenes, the process of evolution is slow and you don't always know what has changed until it’s already happened,” she explains. “I think most of the live code scene is always undergoing some sort of renaissance, and I think it's a good thing to avoid staying too static. There are always people developing new tools and mediums, and it's not like a musical genre as such, there are lots of different edge cases of live coding going on.”
While on the one hand constantly evolving, algorave is equally renowned for its low barriers to entry due to its open-source nature.
“Just by the nature of the software being open source, everyone is very free in sharing their ‘secrets’ and techniques,” explains Antonio Roberts. “With algorave you can see the code, so it is very hard to hide your secrets if you have any!”
Live coder and co-organiser of algorave’s Corsica event, Eye Measure, echoes that this sentiment that throughout the scene: “There is such a strong and active community of people and tutorials to help you get started and make progress. With Tidal Cycles in particular (which is what I use), I’ve been able to directly ask the person who made it to help me with installing and understanding how to use it - this feels particularly unusual and very lucky! The community is a big motivator for my involvement. Everyone is really keen to support each other and keen to try out new ideas.”
“As well as this, I really enjoy playing at and organising algoraves because they feel so different to other types of music events,” they continue. “Of course there are always hierarchies and we have to actively be anti-hierarchical to try to dismantle those, but I really enjoy that part of the algorave manifesto says there should be no headliners. In a world that feels so hyper-competitive, algorave feels genuinely fun. There’s also no expectation that you will be perfect and not even an ambition to be perfect in my opinion. It’s all about the process, and that’s something I feel can often get lost when creating music under capitalism.”
Algorave has always strived for embracing diversity and being inclusive: its open source nature addresses this head on, and the community’s own implementations - such as its ‘no headliner’ manifesto - combined with social media awareness reducing physical barriers has resulted in a positive outlook for algorave’s evolution.
“When I learned about live coding, it seemed like the perfect endeavour because of the lack of female representation in music production, DJing and coding,” notes DJ_Dave. “This all played a role in the creation of the name DJ_Dave, which plays on the idea of myself being a woman in music and STEM simultaneously. I do have to add though, that after I got involved in live coding, I was extremely pleasantly surprised to find out how many non-male people are involved in the community. Like they are in a lot of other ways, the live coding community is very ahead.”
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As the community expands due to the exposure it gets from members such as DJ_Dave, it's maintaining its values, as Roberts notes. “More attention gets more people into it, and I don’t know if we’re just a self selecting bunch of people but so far the community hasn’t gone toxic at all. You won’t find any all-male algoraves, and if there are, we tend to call it out. It’s very rare.”
On the note of calling out, members such as Roberts oftentimes notice areas to address rapidly, and target them head on: going significantly further than posting your typical social media infographic.
“In 2021 I started the (Algo|Afro) Futures programme with Alex McLean, aka Yaxu, which is for early career Black artists to learn more about live coding. One of the motivations for this was because I'd noticed that at pretty much all of the algoraves [I went to] I'd be either the only Black person or person of colour. This, unfortunately, isn't unique to just algoraves and applies to electronic music (and digital art) in general, but we felt we could do something to address it, not necessarily solve it.”
“I feel quite happy about algorave’s evolution,” Roberts continues. “The nature of the software being open source means that it's very unlikely/nearly impossible for the tools we're using to be ‘bought out’ and restricted behind some sort of paywall, so I'm not afraid of that happening any time soon. Of course this also is happening because of a massive effort from the community in constantly reasserting that the software, live coding and algoraves are open to everyone.” The algrorave community's continuous self-reflection and development sets an example for the wider electronic music industry.
With a rise in attention and participation, however, draws assumptions which often don’t sit comfortably with those involved; and if you take a moment to understand algorave yourself, you will liekly agree with the community’s discomfort. “We’re kind of portrayed in the media as a threat to DJs, or taking over,” suggests Roberts. “It’s just another approach to doing things, you know? Electronic music has been around forever and having things in sequence on an algorithm is a thing people are doing - but this is just another approach. I guess with increased attention, and our evolution, we’ve had to fight against that quite a lot.”
Regardless of perception, the digital nature of algorave suggests that it won’t be disappearing anytime soon. If anything, content creators such as DJ_Dave will increase in visibility, creating an inevitable curiosity into the concept.
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During our discussion, Roberts laughs as he recalls seeing live coding at a folk festival recently, emphasising the spreading nature of algorave. “In the future, I see it popping up in more places and areas of music and art,” he says. “I'd love to see, for example, an already popular rock, pop, or hip hop artist use live coding in the work. Not necessarily to help legitimise the practice, but to see how they would approach using it.”
“I think live coding provides an alternative model for how things could be,” Wilson ponders. “One of the big components is open sourcing code - i.e. things should be readily available for someone else to run on their own computer and pick apart.
“I think this philosophy of the distribution of knowledge is going to be key in fighting some of the larger problems of the music industry and society: from companies like Spotify's unfair algorithmic practices to gated-NFT festivals.”
And due to the openness of live coding, why don’t you have a shot?
“Download Sonic Pi and give it a try,” recommends DJ_Dave. “Especially if you have no coding background, Sonic Pi was designed to be an introductory learning tool for both coding and music and it’s a really great place to start (and it’s free!)”
Free, welcoming and global events with no sign of slowing down? See you at the next algorave.
10 years of Algorave takes place today at Corsica Studios, details here
Niamh Ingram is Mixmag’s Weekend Editor and freelance writer, follow her on Twitter