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'Algorave' Is the Future of Dance Music (if You're a Nerd)

I went to a club night where the music was created live with computer code.

by Daniel Dylan Wray, Photos: Paul Cantrell
25 November 2013, 12:10pm

Algorave programmers writing musical code

For most people, the only type of code involved in clubbing is a dress code. However, it turns out there's a whole musical subculture based around watching people who love computers create dance music with live computer coding. "Algorave" – or algorithmic rave – is a scene and club night that has defined its music as: "sounds wholly or partly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive conditionals".

Let's face it, it's a shit sell; you can't imagine too many people being lured from the queues for Fabric and Oceana by promises of repetitive conditionals. But while it would be pretty easy to ridicule algorave, it's new and it exists, so I thought I'd go along to check it out for myself. Besides, no one wants to look back in 30 years and realise that they were that guy who bullied the Belleville Three at school because they were computer-loving nerds who weren't listening to The Ramones.

An algorave set recorded in Barcelona

The promoters of the Algorave night take their keyboard parties all over the world and have previously put on events in places like Canada, Slovenia, Mexico and London. Tonight, they're in Sheffield – a city that has a proud tradition of siring innovative electronic music – with a line-up of artists whose descriptions sound like captchas. "Glitch cellular automata", "algokraut" and "ambient gabber" are some of my favourites.

Before the night kicks off, I speak to one of the Algorave founders, Alex McLean, who performs solo as Yaxu and is a member of the laptop three-piece, Slub, about the movement's origins. "Live coding didn’t really exist," Alex tells me. "So we kind of had to invent it," adds Slub co-member Nick Collins, who also performs solo as Sick Lincoln.

"I’m a live coder, and over the last ten years I’ve been writing code to try to make people dance. That’s my aim," Alex tells me. Writing code to make music has been a decade-long interest for Alex and Nick, but the epiphany to transport it into a club environment didn’t come along until a couple of years back. "Nick and I were driving up to Nottingham for an event, and we tuned into a pirate radio station called Rogue FM," Alex says. "DJ Jigsaw was on, playing loads of happy hardcore, and that sort of influenced our set that night. At that point, it became algorave."

By their own description, "Algoraves embrace the alien sounds of raves from the past, and introduce alien, futuristic rhythms and beats made through strange, algorithm-aided processes." Alex attempts to breakdown the function of live coding in simplistic terms: "It’s a bit like making a knitting pattern or something; you come up with this usually quite simple way of describing patterns – this is my approach – and then use this as a sort of language for describing your music."

This is what algorave looks like

"Because you have a computer there that's following this pattern as you’re typing it, it’s the writing of the pattern that's making the music. You’re not writing a pattern that generates a whole piece, you’re just writing a pattern that describes one loop, and then to change the music you change the loop. It's very cyclic. It’s writing text, but what I'm doing is quite simple, really. Other performers, like Nick, actually get involved with synthesis – so describing graphs and operators that work together in a big network to create live sound. I work on the level of patterns, but other people performing tonight will be going all the way down to sample level."

In essence, the aim is to put programming at the forefront of the club experience, to present the act of live programming as an art form in itself.

I return to the venue later that evening to see what turning programming into an art form looks like. Glasses, walking boots and backpacks form the universal dress code, and pretty much any conversation I overhear revolves around something tech-related. It's not an atmosphere that would give your traditional club bouncer much trouble and it doesn't feel like much saliva will be exchanged on the dancefloor.

Alex, AKA Yaxu 

Alex performs first, as Yaxu. He sits on the floor, cross-legged in socks with his keyboard on his lap, staring up at the giant projected screen that's gradually filling with code. His fingers glide over the keys like one of those Taiwanese child prodigy pianists who turn up on YouTube every so often. The audience’s eyes are glued to the screen as Yaxu somehow turns lots of numbers and digits into a glitchy fusion of dub, bass and techno. Heads bob and people smile, not necessarily in time with – or as a reaction to – the music, but in gawping awe of the code unfurling in front of them. Some performers go for a more visual approach, hiding their code behind graphics in an attempt to draw focus to the results rather than the process.

Curious Machine is a good example of the latter, spewing out a scattered, Autechre-esque melee of ambient glitch behind a bunch of visuals that mask the coding. Leeds-based Section_9 reels off code so fast that everyone – even someone like me, who doesn’t have a fucking clue what's going on – can’t fail to be impressed. Young students point at the screen, attempting to dissect the code, working out what's going into the loops and beats gradually filling the screen.

People are locked into the Matrix, but there aren't many little blue pills going around. Hedonism doesn't appear to be at the heart of this movement, at least not tonight anyway. As I walk through the fairly scattered crowd, it's more real ale and appreciative nods than Malibu and MDMA. At some point someone shouts, ironically, "Has anyone got any ketamine?" and that's the closest the night comes to depravity. Another thing that's noticeable about the movement is the spontaneous nature of it all. Codes are built from scratch live and can easily become volatile or unstable because there's often no back-up infrastructure to support or reinforce them. 

"The code gets quite complex and I can change it, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when I change it. It becomes something that I’m just playing with," Alex says. In fact, during Section_9’s performance, lines on the giant screen suddenly start turning red, and with each red line a different sound, loop or beat dies. The sound crumbles away line by line and then dies completely. 

"It’s crashed," he says to the audience. But, within seconds, he's back at it and a beat returns. While danger might not be something you instantly associate with coding, the live set-up means results often seem to teeter precariously between spot on and an absolute fucking disaster. Which is probably aided – at least, in my ill-informed view – by the fact the screen looks like it's displaying a giant electrical malfunction at all times. As a result, the sounds throughout the night, even by one single artist, vary greatly. Occasionally it’s inconsistent, clunky and incoherent; other times it’s exciting, unpredictable and absorbing.

Luuma, masking code with visuals

It's been said that algorave acts as a junction at which hacker philosophy, geek culture and clubbing all meet, but very little of what most people would recognise as "clubbing" is going on tonight. A handful of people break into some kind of motion that extends beyond standing rooted to the spot, but it's pretty tame.

It's not so much about the music – writing code or no writing code, artists like Luuma would likely fill plenty of dancefloors – but to date algorave hasn't managed to pair the bedroom isolation of coding with the empathy and euphoria of communal club culture. However, while it's currently little more than a computer club with strobe lights, Alex seems fine with that. For him, for now, the code remains the star attraction and one that Sheffield's small band of algoravers have no problem immersing themselves in.

This article was amended to represent the fact that the artists mentioned weren't creating music with HTML.

Follow Daniel on Twitter: @DanielDylanWray

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