Taller “Programación de música en TidalCycles” en Cuba
Taller “Programación de música en TidalCycles” en Cuba

Live coding in Cuba: from code to metric

8 minutos / María Lucía Expósito

26.02.2020 / Articles

At the beginning of the 20th century, Lévi-Strauss applied the principles of linguistic structuralism to study cultural patterns and define them algorithmically, and Chomsky tried to do the same with human language in the wake of his generative grammar.
Decades later, through the doors of the millennium, programming languages are still seen by non-practitioners as characters invoked in dark rooms.
But we arrive at another era of innovation, one in which new roles emerge at the expense of technology. Among these we find a very particular type of musical production, in which tempos, rhythms and scales are at the order of a line of code. Live coding has begun an era for the generation of live and studio music. At this point, the idea of turning programmers into DJs and DJs seeing them throwing waves on a console is not so far-fetched.

Art + programming = live coding

Live coding is a form of scenic art and a creativity technique focused on real-time writing of source code from interactive programming. Born in the air of electroacoustic music in UK universities, this practice, which includes a language to describe flexible sequences (polyphonic, polyrhythmic or generative), has gone in crescendo .

In the prehistory of live coding, the sound they generated was obtuse and abstract; without bars or notes (and with shatter-ears frequencies). Difficult compositions to dance and interpret. But, by the way, programming skills improved and the musical projects of the live coders began to be a fact.

This is how we get to Toplab, which in 2004 opened a chapter in this saga by becoming the first organization in the world created with the express mission of exploring and promoting the live coding. TidalCycles (known as "tidal") is a popular open source programming language created in 2009 by Alex McLean that allows you to do live coding based on patterns, either live music in algoraves or composing in the study. It is based on Haskell, standardized multipurpose programming language, is compatible with any system operational, and allows to shoot sequences and connect them to a sample bank (through the OSC protocol). To use tidal it is also necessary to master Super Collider (program to make music with free license code) and a plugin that link the text editor with the software.

In 2012, in the United Kingdom a group of coders headed by Alex McLean and Nick Collins began to move a series of events called algorave. In these intersections between algorithm and rave, the intention was to get live coding out of the academy to make music to dance, very much in line with the techno scene. In an algorave, as a general rule, the code must be projected in order to show attendees an activity, within the logic of open-source sharing, while another coder accompanies the performance with visual representations.

In this field, another acquaintance is Sonic Pi, Ruby-based live coding environment, originally designed for music lessons in schools. 

In all these languages, and as happens in an orchestra, whoever creates the sequence of characters is the one who is in charge of the melody.

Eduardo Pujol. Photo: María Lucía Expósito.

Eduardo Pujol. Photo: María Lucía Expósito.

Cuba also has live coders

Havana. 26 degrees. La Lisa, at more than 75 decibels. Eduardo Pujol sits down to compose on his fifth floor. It comes from the world of zeros and ones. His resume is summarized in three weeks using tidal and a year and a half experimenting with Sonic Pi and thousands of lines of code. It all started with a recommended video on YouTube.

“I like it as a way of making music and because it is easier to use than other programs for mixing and generation. Right now, as a hobby, I produce electronic music, although only a couple of friends have heard what I do.

“I have sound files that are mine, but most of them I download. I don't think much when I compose, it's ethereal; I try to get carried away and make it sound interesting. 

“As a way of composition, in this system you can make rapid changes in the march, you are not tied to a single thing, the same sample can modify it to the point where it becomes something completely new. As a result, an accumulation of infinite possibilities opens up. 

“Here DJs have skills to adapt to technology and make it their own,” reflects Eduardo. "Who knows if tomorrow a more specific interest in live coding made in Cuba is born suddenly?"

Malitzin Cortés and Iván Abreu during the Workshop in Havana. Photo: María Lucía Expósito

Malitzin Cortés and Iván Abreu during the Workshop in Havana. Photo: María Lucía Expósito

Show me your screens

In the meantime, virtual communities are winning the bet. The collaborative work within musical productions marks another terrain for this kind of guild or sound society. From the perspective of a live coder, this practice would be an antonym of development that considers software as a commercial product and not as a means of interaction, exchange and editing of environments. Hence one of his slogan: Show us your screens.

A few weeks ago, the programmer, Mexican architect and live coder Malitzin Cortés and Cuban-Mexican multimedia artist Iván Abreu came to Cuba. The “Music Programming in TidalCycles” workshop brought Cuban participants a good excuse to run out of sleep. Cuban code and guaguancó purely coded. Tracks of techno, based on improvisation in real-time. Instruments at the mercy of the fingers to the keyboard. Malitzin is confident that there is a desire in several generations to produce and listen to different things and other forms of sound.

“We met a lot of people in the workshop that is innovating despite access difficulties. We detect nodes of people who are super informed. There really is a small community that is beginning to form and wants to produce with this technology. ”

In addition to the lines in the visual field of Tidal, these new actors of creative programming also explained how in algorithmic music and live coding communities communicate and share knowledge and how common is the loudness generated under these methods.

“In Cuba, a phenomenon partially similar to what happened in Mexico can happen. All Latin American countries share certain instances regarding technology: how we consume it, implement it and how we adopt it for music, visual arts, artistic or commercial production. 

"We would like to go back with all the tools ready and make a voice to voice to share them offline with new attendees, and have more days to meet more people who make sound art. The community space of Copincha, Fanguito Estudio and the Ludwig Foundation were the places with which we agreed to return and disseminate content.

"The only difficulty we detected was Internet access, which is still expensive and is not available in relation to salaries. Many of the tools we share are free to use, but they require web downloads. Streaming festivals are very popular in communities around the world; with live coders from England, Colombia, Australia, Mexico, but here the upload of data to the network becomes one of the most complicated things.

"Cubans have a very strong and important history as creators of rhythms and music. We seek to move the maker culture in the Island in pursuit of the visual arts and make possible a couple of events to work on sound improvisation. There is a very eager audience to live this phenomenon.”

The encounter between DJs, new media artists and code lovers in the workshop made a thesis clear: the migration to other production routines could become more than a patch against proprietary software in music and programming, in that equation, it could be a common factor that banishes certain myths about nerds and social aliens. 

Cuba has a vanguard of free software adherents and an army of supporters in musical experimentation. In the face of predefined formulas, live coding will be (or not) the common factor where algorithms serve to explore unusual spaces and DJ’s take their matrix to other sonorities.

María Lucía Expósito

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