Live coding – an interview with Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves)

Dom Aversano

Photo by Antonio Roberts / @hellocatfood

The live coding scene has been growing over the years. Despite this, for many the idea of watching someone create music in code might not have an immediate appeal, though live coders are now playing at top night clubs, experimental music venues, and festivals. As the world becomes more code literate it is likely to become more popular. 

Curious to know more about these digital improvisers I sat down for a chat with Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves) who is a leading musician in the field who learned the art of music coding in the lively scene in Leeds, but now lives in London. 

Did you have a background in either music or programming before you got into live coding?

I grew up with traditional instruments playing piano and guitar, though I always found I had a bit of trouble with coordination. I also found it limiting to be tied down to expressing ideas musically through physicality. I always did that on the side and really enjoyed it. Then I studied mathematics at university. So not really coding, but obviously it underpins a lot of the ideas in coding.

I didn’t start coding until I found out about Algorave and live coding. It was through one of my good friends, Joanne Armitage. My friends would run little house parties and she would rock up with a laptop and start doing live coding, and I remember seeing it and thinking, Oh, that’s really cool, I’d love to do a bit of this.

Which city was this?

At the time I was based in Leeds, Yorkshire, because that’s where many people were based, and there was a lot happening in the city. This was around 2015/2016.

I didn’t know much about coding or how to code. So I started to learn a bit and pick stuff up, and it felt really intuitive and fast to learn. So it was a really exciting experience for me.

It’s quite rare to find coding intuitive or easy to learn.

Yeah, I had tried a few more traditional ways. I bought a MIDI keyboard and Ableton. While I really enjoyed that, there was something about live coding that made me spend a whole weekend not talking to anyone and just getting really into it. I think that’s, as you say, quite rare, but it’s exciting when it happens.

That’s great. Were you using Tidal Cycles?

Yeah, it was Tidal Cycles. So Joanne was using Supercollider, which is, you know, a really big program. When I first started I wanted to use Supercollider because that was all I knew about. So I tried to learn Supercollider, but there were a lot of audio concepts that I didn’t know about at that time and it was very coding intensive. It was quite a lot for someone who didn’t know much about either at the time, so I never really got into Supercollider.

Then I went to an algorave in Leeds and I saw Alex McLean performing using Tidal Cycles. I remember that performance really well. The weekend after I thought, you know, I’m going to download this and try it out. At that time Alex — who wrote the software — was running a lot of workshops and informal meetups in the area. So there was a chance to meet up with other people who were interested in it as well.

Tidal Cycles Code / by Lizzie Wilson

Was this a big thing in Leeds at that time?

Yes, definitely around Yorkshire. I’m sure there were people in London in the late 2000s that were starting off. In the early 2010s, there were a lot of people working, because people were employed by universities in Yorkshire, and it’s got this kind of academic adjacent vibe, with people organising conferences around live coding.

There was a lot happening in Yorkshire around that time, and there still is. Sheffield now tends to be the big place where things are based, but we’re starting to create communities down in London as well and across the UK. So yes, I think Yorkshire is definitely the informal home of it.

I’m curious about what you said earlier about the limitations of physicality. To invert that — what do you consider the liberating ideas that drew you to code and made it feel natural for you?

I think it being so tightly expressed in language. I like to write a lot anyway, so that makes it very intuitive for someone like me. I like to think through words. So I can type out exactly what I want a kick drum sample to do: play two times as fast, or four times as fast. Using words to make connections between what you want the sounds to do is what drew me to it, and I think working this way allows you to achieve a level of complexity quite quickly.

With a traditional digital audio workstation, you have to copy and paste a lot and decide, for instance, on the fourth time round I want to change this bar, and then you have to zoom into where the fourth set of notes is. There’s a lot of copy and pasting and manual editing. I found being able to express an idea in a really conjunct and satisfying way in code exciting. It allows you to achieve a level of complexity quite quickly that produces interesting music.

The live aspect of performance places you within a deeper tradition of improvisation, however, code is more frequently associated with meticulous engineering and planning. How does improvisation work with code?

I think that’s something really interesting. If you think about coding in general, it tends to be, say, you want to make a product, so you go away and you write some code and it does something. This way of coding is very different because you do something, you try it out, and then you ask, does this work? Yes or no. That’s kind of cool, and you see the process happening in real-time, rather than it just being a piece of code that is run and then produces a thing.

Photo by Jonathan Reus

Part of the thrill of improvisation comes from the risk of making mistakes publicly, which makes it exciting for the audience and for the artists. How do you feel about improvising?

At first, I always found it quite scary, whereas now I find it enjoyable. That is not to say I am completely fine now, but you get through this process of learning to accept the error or learning to go where it takes you. So yeah, I find the level of unpredictability and never knowing what’s going to happen a really interesting part of it.

How much of an idea do you have of what you’re going to do before performing?

There are people who are a bit more purist and start completely from scratch. They do this thing called blank slate coding, where they have a completely blank screen and then over the performance they build it up. The more time you spend learning the language, the more you feel confident at accessing different ideas or concepts quicker, but I like to have a few ideas and then improvise around them. When I start performing I have some things written on the screen and then I can work with them.

It’s not like one way is more righteous than the other, and people are quite accepting of that. You don’t have to start completely from scratch to be considered coding, but there are different levels of blindness and improvisation that people focus on.

It seems like there are more women involved in live coding than in traditional electronic scenes. Is that your experience?

Yes, and there has been a conscious effort to do that. It’s been the work of a lot of other women before me who’ve tried hard to make sure that if we’re putting on a gig there are women involved in the lineup. This also raises questions like, how do we educate other women? How do we get them to feel comfortable? With women specifically, the idea of failure and of making mistakes can be difficult. There is some documentation on this, for instance, a paper by Dr Joanna Armitage, Spaces to Fail In, that I think is really interesting and can help with how to explore this domain.

It’s not just women though. I think there are other areas that we could improve on. Live coding is not a utopia, but I think people are trying to make it as open a space as possible. I think this reflects some of the other ideas of open-source software, like freedom and sharing.

Introversion of Sacrifice EP by Digital Selves (Lizzie Wilson)

What other live coders inspire you?

I would say, if I’m playing around the UK, I would always watch out for sets from +777000 (with Nunez on visuals), Michael-Jon Mizra, yaxu, heavy lifting, dundas, Alo Alik, eye measure, tyger blue plus visualists hellocatfood, Joana Chicau and Ulysses Popple, mahalia h-r

More internationally, I really like the work of Renick Bell, spednar, {arsonist}, lil data, nesso, hogobogobogo & gibby-dj 

If someone goes to an algorave what can they expect? Is the audience mostly participants, or is there an audience for people who don’t code?

I think you always get a mixture of both. There are some people who are more interested in reading and understanding the code. Often they forget to dance because they’re just standing there and thinking, but there is dancing. There should be dancing! I feel like, if you’re making dance music, it’s nice when people actually dance to it!

It depends on the person as well. There are people who are a lot more experimental and make harsh noise that pushes the limits of what is danceable. Then there are people who like to make music that is very danceable, beat-driven, and arranged. If you go to an Algorave you wouldn’t expect to have one end of the spectrum or other, you will probably get a bit of both.

Over the past few years, we’ve done quite a few shows in London at Corsica Studios, which is a very traditional nightclub space, with a large dark room and a big sound system, as well as more experimental art venues like Iklectik, which is also in London. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum where people do things in a more academic setting. So it’s spread out through quite a lot of places.

My personal favourite is playing in clubs where people actually dance, because I think that’s more fun and exciting than say art galleries, where it’s always a bit sterile. It’s not as fun as being in a place where the space really invites you to let go a little bit and dance. That’s the nice thing about playing in clubs.

Bandcamp recently got bought by Songtradr who then proceeded to lay off 50% of the staff. Traditionally Bandcamp has been seen as an Oasis for independent recording musicians, amid what otherwise are generally considered a series of bad options. Do you have any thoughts on this, especially given that you have released music on Bandcamp?

When I’ve done releases before we haven’t released with Spotify. I’ve only done releases through Bandcamp because as you say, it felt like this safe space for artists, or an Oasis. It was the one platform where artists weren’t held to ransom for releasing their own music. It’s been a slow decline, having been acquired by Epic Games last year. When that happened I winced a little bit, because it was like, well, what’s going to happen now? It felt quite hard to trust that they were going to do anything good with it.

Obviously, it’s hard. I think the solution is for more people to run independent projects, co-ops, and small ventures. Then to find new niches and new ways for musicians to exist and coexist in music, get their releases out, and think of new solutions to support artists and labels. At times like this, it’s always a bit, you know, dampened by this constant flow of like, oh, we’ve got this platform that’s made for artists and now it’s gone, but people always find ways. Bandcamp came out of a need for a new kind of platform. So without it, maybe there’ll be something else that will come out of the new need.

I’m hopeful. I like to be hopeful.

To discover more about Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves) you can follow the links to her website, Bandcamp, Twitter, and Instagram

What do recent trends in generative art mean for music?

Dom Aversano

Manu #34 by artist Rich Poole

In his provocative and fascinating book, Noise, the French musicologist and economist Jacques Attali wrote the following about the prophetic power of music.

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.

For a long time I considered this flattering statement about music to be true, but the more I learned about visual arts the more I saw that at various points in history it seemed to push ahead of music. Decades before Brian Eno used the term Generative Music the term Generative Art was being used, which does not mean there were no generative processes in music before then — there certainly were — but the terminology helped articulate a theoretical framework through which the art could be understood and developed.

In the last few years a big shift occurred in visual generative arts, somewhat obscured by the huge attention given to advances in machine learning and large language models, but worthy of examination for anyone interested in digital arts.

This innovation was fuelled by NFTs or non-fungible tokens (you can read more about them here). Putting aside the controversial ethical and technological aspects of cryptocurrency and NFTs — which I hope to cover in a future post — the economy it produced provided many generative artists with a living, during which the technical aspects of the art grew more sophisticated and publications like Right Click Save emerged to document the movement. This year the NFT economy fundamentally collapsed, making for an opportune moment to review what happened during its boom, and its relevance to musicians and composers.

In 2021 the generative artist and writer Tyler Hobbs wrote an important essay called The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art, which helps make sense of the recent changes to generative art. Within it, he describes two broad categories of generative art: short-form and long-form.

Generative art has traditionally favoured short-form, which he describes as follows.

First, there was almost always a “curation” step. The artist could generate as many outputs as they pleased and then filter those down to a small set of favorites. Only this curated set of output would be presented to the public.

The result of this is often small collections ranging from a single image to about a dozen. The artist is still largely in control, creating art in a manner that does not radically deviate from tradition.

In a jargon-dense paragraph Hobbs describes long-form art, with the last sentence being especially significant.

The artist creates a generative script (e.g. Fidenza) that is written to the Ethereum blockchain, making it permanent, immutable, and verifiable. Next, the artist specifies how many iterations will be available to be minted by the script. A typical choice is in the 500 to 1000 range. When a collector mints an iteration (i.e. they make a purchase), the script is run to generate a new output, and that output is wrapped in an NFT and transferred directly to the collector. Nobody, including the collector, the platform, or the artist, knows precisely what will be generated when the script is run, so the full range of outputs is a surprise to everyone.

This constitutes a fundamental change. The artist no longer directly creates the art but an algorithm to create art, renouncing control over what the algorithm produces from the moment it is published. It is a significant shift in the relationship between the artist, the artwork, and the audience, that calls into question the definition of art.

Manu #216 by artist Rich Poole

Within the same essay, Hobbs describes a concept for analysing long-form art that he calls “output space”.

Fundamentally, with long-form, collectors and viewers become much more familiar with the “output space” of the program. In other words, they have a clear idea of exactly what the program is capable of generating, and how likely it is to generate one output versus another. This was not the case with short-form works, where the output space was either very narrow (sometimes singular) or cherry-picked for the best highlights.

This concept of an algorithm’s spectrum of variation is valuable. After all, scale without meaningful variation is decorated repetition. Paradoxically — in a superficial sense at least — algorithms can simultaneously have infinite permutations and a great sense of predictability and monotony. The notion of output space is perhaps a more accurate way to evaluate generative works than their literal number of iterations or other quantifiable measures.

In reflecting on how the concept of long-form might exist in music, two works sprung to mind.

The first is Jem Finer’s Longplayer. The composition was created with the intention of being played for a millennium and is currently installed at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London. For almost a year I worked part-time at the Longplayer and had the opportunity to listen to the installation for hours on end. It struck me as a novel and ambitious idea with an attractive sound, but I was not able to detect any noticeable variation or development from one hour, week, or month to the next. To use the language of generative art, its output space felt narrow — at least over a duration that is short in comparison to its intended length.

I should point out this might well miss the point of the composition, designed as it is to make one reflect on vast time scales and to invite intergenerational collaboration.

The second example is Brian Eno’s composition Reflections, released both as an app and a series of musical excerpts. Eno describes it using the metaphor of a river.

It’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.

Having discovered this piece relatively recently I have not listened sufficiently to have an opinion, although there are many glowing online reviews about its ability to transform and change mood, and people listening to it extensively.

The requirement of extensive listening highlights an important difference between music and visual art. It is much quicker to scan over a collection of 1,000 images than to spend, hours, weeks, or even months attentively listening to an algorithm unfold, which helps explain why long-form generative art is currently more popular than long-form generative music, though there may be another reason too.

You might ask why has long-form generative art become so popular recently as it is by no means a new concept. In 1949 the abstract artist Joseph Albers began a 25-year project working on an iconic and influential series called A Homage to Squares, comprising over 100 paintings that combine squares of different sizes and colours in a variety of ways. By contrast, you now have artists developing algorithms in a couple of months to create ten times more images than Albers’s series. Is this meaningful art, or a hi-tech example of the philosophical more is more?

While it might be cynical to reduce an art movement to a single economic factor, it would also be naive, to ignore it. A significant number of people were made wealthy in a very short time by the boom of NFTs, and the supply and demand relationship was transformed as digital art can be produced with dramatically less time and cost than traditional art. Huge demand could be met with huge supply with little more effort than adding a couple of zeros to the number of iterations.

The rates that certain pieces sold for at the height of the hype are astonishing. A single image in a collection of Cellular Automaton sold for 1,000,000 Tezos (£537,000). I do not know whether this was motivated by some murky financial practice or credulity on the part of the collector, but to have a single work in a collection of 1,000 — composed from an 80-year-old mathematical concept — selling for such a huge price indicates that money significantly shapes the culture. Despite the rot, some art that emerged from this movement is genuinely inspiring and thought-provoking.

Take Dreaming of Le Corbusier, by the Norwegian artist Andreas Rau. It is an impressive algorithm that generates a new ‘architectural’ abstract artwork each time you click on it. Some works have the appearance of having been designed deliberately, with the consistent quality of the compositions being remarkable.

There is also the work of Rich Poole which is featured in this piece. The series feels musical in its composition — reminiscent of a beautiful music sequencer, where colour, height, and length correspond to some musical parameters. The owners of the NFTs choose from iterations of an algorithm what work they would like, meaning the series is ‘collector-curated’.

What happens to generative art now that NFTs have collapsed? That is anyone’s guess. It is hard to envision the sudden emergence of an economy remotely comparable to the over-hyped NFT market. Yet there has been a shift and a new potential glanced at, not just by the artists involved, but by all of us.

The artworks featured in this article are shared with kind permission by the artist Rich Poole. You can view his entire series for Manu here