There’s a myth that music made with computers is cold, unfeeling.
But what if music made with computers, algorithms and code could bring a room full of people together, grooving to the beats, swaying, nodding and freaking to the intricate, interwoven rhythms and melodies brought to life by a conductor of a hundred tiny electronic instrumentalists inside of a computer program? What if the programs and code bringing that electronic music to life could have a bit of a mind of its own? And what if the visuals projected behind the artists had a life of their own, too?
This is the world of generative audio-visual music, algorithm-based art often categorized as ‘algorave.’ Making generative music and visuals may seem intimidating for those not familiar, but its basis in free, open-sourced programs opens the sandbox of audiovisual exploration to anyone with a computer.
With its upcoming showcase, Cosmic Sound hopes to offer a window into algorave creation. Cosmic Sound is a consortium that focuses on the promotion of live music and art that pushes aural and visual boundaries. This event aims to demonstrate the many ways that generative music and visuals can be made, creating an exploratory opportunity for anyone curious about algorithmic music and art, the core of algorave culture.
Cosmic Sound’s captains Kevin Bednar and Danielle Rager will be performing as DXGPVWZ (pronounced Dog Paws). The pair create an audio/visual experience using open-sourced programs like openFrameworks and TidalCycles, and both artists pull from experience at their day jobs: Bednar is a programmer and Rager a computational neuroscientist. While fields like computer programming, math and science may seem at odds with creative work, skills from the STEM world can translate rather nicely to algorithmic art.
“I’m making a lot of plots and figures and doing a lot of mathematical functions in three dimensional spaces for my day job. You can make a lot of cool 3-D things using math,” explains Rager. “I’ve been learning to translate that to openFrameworks, which is a [computer] language to do visuals where basically you can animate those things and make them move through time.”
For DXGPVWZ, both Bednar and Rager work with the coding, and sometimes the results can be unpredictable. Bednar says that’s not always a bad thing.
“Some of the best reactions I’ve gotten during my sets are when the code is totally shitting the bed, and I’m like, ‘Oh, well, I can’t do anything because my computer is freezing and it sounds insane,’ and people are cheering. I think people like the chaos,” he explains.
One of the other performers, Renick Bell, is a well-respected algorave artist from Japan. His intricate electronic sounds and visuals are generated by a program he himself authored called Conductive. Rager and Bednar describe Bell as the conductor of an orchestra of electronic sounds, rather than the instrumentalist himself. Therefore, his results are a bit more predictable.
Bell’s latest EP, What Holds You Back, is an electrifying nine minutes of dynamic, danceable music that feel so precise, yet so organic. If open-sourced programs are the sandbox, Bell is the person who makes giant, intricate sand sculptures at competitions on the beach, and he makes it look easy, too.
Performer William Fields approaches generative music a little differently. Fields begins with a ruleset and lets the program do its thing, making up its own rules based on patterns or keys implemented by Fields. In this scenario, the sand in the sandbox has become a little sentient, so it’s a bit more like collaborating with sand than strictly sculpting with it.
The fourth performer, Father of Two, uses electronic music to explore and solidify the connection between Midwestern dance music, UK soundsystem culture and wider global club sounds. In the past he’s showcased generative musicians in his mixes, showing that the generative performances can exist past their live iterations in amorphous ways, giving second or third life to performances that happened in real time.
If this all seems mysterious and strange and confusing—music and art made from computer code and programs with different computer languages, and the way it isn’t and isn’t like playing in a sandbox—fear not. One of the main focuses of algorave is sharing insider information—giving you a seat at the sandbox and some tools to build with too. At most events for generative music, you can hear the sounds, see the visuals and also see a projection of the code itself that the artist or artists are working on.
“The interesting thing about algorithmic art culture is that people are into sharing the process instead of hiding it,” says Rager.
“The whole core of algorave is very much about showing screens. You don’t want to be making some secretive creation you hold the keys to,” adds Bednar.
Whether or not they understand the actual syntax of the programs, viewers can see what changes in the code are making things happen.
“I think most people come in not knowing what they’re looking at, but by the end have a pretty good idea of how changes in the code will change the sound or image,” says Bednar, “And that makes you want to use it too.”
And it doesn’t take a mountain of money to create this kind of art.
“It’s all free and open, so I don’t need to spend 30 grand on a studio [like old school electronic artists],” says Bednar. “It’s cool that people can use this free set of tools to make crazy, complex unheard sounds.”